If any album deserved one of those ridiculous parental-advisory warning stickers, it would be The Essential Johnny Cash (1955- 1983) (Columbia/ Legacy). In the course of 75 songs sprawled over three CDs or cassettes, characters get gunned down and hanged, not to mention stoned. (In 1964’s ”Bad News,” Cash pretends to snort up.) One of his expletives is bleeped in ”A Boy Named Sue,” and in 1956’s ”Folsom Prison Blues,” he sings — in that dark, rumpled baritone, the vocal equivalent of battered leather — lyrics like ”I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” The country Ice Cube, anyone?
That image may not jibe with the common perception of Cash — the stern, pious Man in Black and 1992 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee — but that’s merely one reason to be pleasantly surprised by The Essential, the first comprehensive Cash collection to include material from his years at both Sun Records (1955-58) and Columbia (1958-83). During those first 28 years of his career, Cash weathered plenty of highs and lows, and he documented them all in some of the most somber songs ever recorded. But he was also a mad scientist, recording folk songs, gospel, bluegrass, Wild West ballads, rockabilly, and heartfelt odes to both the counterculture and the flag. Cash’s legacy is as big and contradictory as the country itself, and it’s laid out in all its glory on The Essential Johnny Cash.
Cash’s singles for Sun, like ”Folsom Prison Blues,” ”Big River,” and ”Guess Things Happen That Way,” made him a star, and compiler Gregg Geller wisely opens the box with a hefty sampling. The music still sounds remarkably stark, thanks to the mix of guitarist Luther Perkins’ Morse-code leads, the clip-clop rhythms, and Cash’s old-before-its-time delivery. (It’s easy to forget that ”I Walk the Line” is a love song.) When Cash left Sun for Columbia, the arrangements grew a bit more lush, but the essential hardness of his sound remained. The results were musical mornings-after (his majestic 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s ”Sunday Morning Coming Down”) and a nonstop barrage of great singles, most of them included here: the brooding ”Ring of Fire,” the frisky ”Jackson” (a tomcat duet with wife June Carter), the forlorn ”I Still Miss Someone,” and the deliriously silly ”A Boy Named Sue.”
As tightly coiled as Cash could be, he also had a fondness for dopey but lovable novelty songs like 1976’s ”One Piece at a Time,” the tall tale of a guy who assembles his car from bits of other autos. He also indulged himself in whacked-out set pieces like the eight-minute cowpoke opera ”The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” complete with dialogue. The Essential, arranged in roughly chronological order, touches on all those phases. But it conveniently groups them together, making it easy to skip past, say, eight consecutive cornball folk ballads.
The box’s unifying factor is, of course, Cash’s voice, a rich, remarkable instrument that never whined; instead, it seemed to absorb pain — took it as a given, in fact. As he neared the end of his Columbia contract (he’s currently with PolyGram), Cash’s material and producers often let him down, but his hangdog voice never did. Like a jazz singer’s, his vocal cords just grew more resonant. (For proof, check out his chilling version of Bruce Springsteen’s ”Highway Patrolman.”) ”Singing seems to help a troubled soul,” Cash sang in his 1968 hit ”Daddy Sang Bass.” Throughout The Essential, Cash keeps trying to ease his own.