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The second-best all-time quote about Johnny Cash comes from none other than Dolly Parton, who, in her chirpy Tennessee twang, manages to unearth a nugget of Rocky Mountain wisdom just about every time she parts her lips: “When I first met him, I was probably 12 or 13 years old. He was just pilled to the gills, doped up and hyper and had all that nervous energy, but even still, he had that charm, that magic. I had never really known what true sex appeal really was, bein’ a young girl, and I guess I had raging hormones all the time. I don’t know how much is to Johnny’s credit and how much was to my just bein’ horny, but when I first came to Nashville, I saw Johnny Cash on stage, and I felt everything in the world a girl could feel.”
Who can blame her? Despite the recent onset of Shy-Drager syndrome, not to mention 68 years of Behind the Music-style hard living, Cash remains a sequoia-statured monolith, a dirt-road leviathan with coast-to-coast shoulders, exhausted but all-knowing eyes, and a low growl that often sounds like a crypt door closing. But perhaps something else was stirring in and around young Dolly’s loins, something more substantial than an itchy case of the hot ‘n’ heavys—something that leads us to the dead-on best summation of Cash. Says Merle Haggard: “Johnny Cash, he’s like President Lincoln or somethin’. I was in the prison band when I first saw him in San Quentin. I was impressed with his ability to take five thousand convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers. That’s pretty hard to do.”
Who can turn his back on the Man in Black? It’s as if his soul were cave-aged 5,000 years before his heart even started pumping. Go ahead: Try to name one hard-hitting temptation that this son of Southern Baptist sharecroppers hasn’t taken the full 15 rounds. Exactly. For better or for worse, for entertainment or for knowledge, we have watched it all—his hard losses, his moral victories, his nagging draws—and we still can’t look away.
Never have Cash’s inner complexities been so unearthed, untangled, uncensored as on the new three-disc box set, Love God Murder, a must-have 48-track collection of obscurities, B-sides, and alternate-version hits, all hand-picked by the artist himself. (By the way, the discs are also available separately, with 16 tracks apiece, but cheapskates beware: With the box set, you get some really cool rub-on tattoos—a heart, a cross, a pistol—along with two-plus hours of enlightenment.)
In Cash’s world, a kiss is never just a kiss, and a bullet to the gut is something you had comin’, son. Yes, indeed: Nothing is ever as it seems. The love songs are filled with insecurity, depression, and rage; the murder tunes are framed with hope and humor; and the religious work is often buried deep in pop-rock metaphor and country woe. If you put all three discs on a blind-shuffle rotation in your CD player, you wouldn’t be able to tell which one most of the cuts came from. Which, I imagine, is exactly Cash’s point. Of course, on a much more simplistic note, Love God Murder is also the best road-trip soundtrack you can find this summer. So take it however you like—but just take it.
The Love disc kicks off with a mono version of “I Walk the Line,” recorded April 2, 1956, and produced by legendary Sun Records guru Sam Phillips. Cash would return to this hopalong shuffle beat hundreds (thousands? millions?) of times over the next 40 years. But thanks to that baritone foghorn that can impart the ways of the world with a throaty, froggy “ba-room” (see the badass “My Old Faded Rose”), the singer rarely fell into the trap of repeating himself—especially when he had amour on the mind. And, from the looks of it, Cash has spent more time shooting Cupid than the other way around. True-blue country weepers “A Little at a Time” and “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart)” portray the singer as a woozy protagonist dead-dog desperate for a way to keep a woman in his life. (Cash Fun Fact: His first wife, Vivian Liberto, divorced him in 1966 after he was arrested by customs officials for attempting to smuggle amphetamines into Mexico.) On the lighter side, “Happiness Is You” is sweet, sincere, and a nice tune to break out at your second wedding, and the raucous honky-tonk of “I Feel Better All Over,” from 1960’s Now, There Was a Song!, is a life-affirming, shit-kicking chestnut and a welcome survivor from Cash’s looming forgotten pile.
If the God installment tells us anything, it’s that Cash would have made a fine Sunday school teacher—you know, when he wasn’t hopped up on goofballs and gurgling blissed-out gibberish. Only the Man in Black—and maybe Dylan or Van Morrison—would have the guts, and the persuasive talent, to get away with calling Jesus “The Greatest Cowboy of Them All.” But he does, and the song is a Wild West howler with a giddy-up pace and a full stable of earnest cowgirl backup singers. (“He loves all his little dogies/He speaks to them kind and gently/And he lifts up any maverick that falls”). Not surprisingly, some of Cash’s most touching vocal performances and tightest guitar-picking came during the late ’60s, after June Carter freed him from a drug habit (and that notorious bad influence, Waylon Jennings) and re-converted him to fundamentalist Christianity. “When He Comes” is a front-porch sing-along touched up with some bleating Mexicali horns, and the solemn-slow “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” features a searing soprano solo from Carter. Unfortunately, the most promising listing, 1959’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” turns out to be overproduced, uninspired, and cheesy—which is a crying shame, really, seeing that a version performed by a just-saved Johnny could probably make a saint out of the saltiest sinner.
Which brings us, ultimately, to Murder, a Cash specialty. (True or false: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” is the coolest line in the history of popular music. Discuss.) Most of the selections here are in the spirit of the old-time balladeering about such outlaws as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Jesse James—you know, back when it was OK to “wahoo!” for cold-blooded killers. The disc’s best cut, “Delia’s Gone,” from Cash’s 1994 album American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin, is chilling as much for its morgue-clammy lyrics as for the way a compassionate Cash croons it as a love song: “First time I shot her/I shot her in the side/Hard to watch her suffer/But with the second shot she died.” (More testament to the strength of the man: Cash, even while battling a neurological disorder, is currently in the studio with Rubin working on a new album.) Murder also includes a 1955 mono version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” which hints of the then-clean Cash’s bad moon rising, and a fiddle-heavy “Orleans Parish Prison,” which was recorded live at Osteraker Prison in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct. 3, 1972. And then there’s the unlikeliest party song ever, “Cocaine Blues,” recorded in front of an auditorium packed with rowdy convicts for 1968’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Just listen to the incarcerated crowd go batshit for the most violent passages of Cash’s message song—and just listen to the singer chuckle right along with them. Oh sure, “Cocaine Blues” is a gut-buster from the start: “Early one morning while making the rounds/I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down/I went right home and I went to bed/I stuck a loving .44 beneath my head.” “Weird Al” should get such laughs.
No matter how eloquently Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, or the box set’s three guest liner-note writers—June Carter Cash (Love), Bono (God), Quentin Tarantino (Murder)—summarize their musical idol, it’s always been Cash himself who’s had the clearest vision into his well-worn soul. And if Love God Murder, a musical necessity for casual fans and die-hards alike,
doesn’t explain Cash well enough, maybe these closing words from the man himself will help: “At times, I’m a voice crying in the wilderness, but at times I’m right on the money and I know what I’m singing about. It’s about sharing, praise, worship and wisdom. So, share in the joy here and maybe the rest will follow for all of us.” CP