Johnny Cash: Love, God, Murder

 NZ Listener

LOVE GOD MURDER, Johnny Cash (3CDs, Columbia)

Johnny Cash could pass for a Pentecostal preacher or a death row convict with equal ease. He has never been either, though he has shared the stage with evangelist Billy Graham and spent the occasional night behind bars (for such heinous crimes as picking flowers in a Nashville public garden, as it turns out.) Yet in the minds of audiences he is both. It is an illusion created in part by his physical demeanour: dark and dignified like a man of the cloth, scarred and haunted like a criminal. Mostly, though, it’s the voice. Nicholas Dawidoff, in his great book In The Country of Country, calls it “flat, artless and grim, the way the white poverty-stricken South was flat, artless and grim.” It as distinctive and authentic as Hank Williams’s high lonesome wail, while almost the tonal opposite. Cash created a kind of vocal naturalism never really heard on record before, pitching his low and lonesome bass-baritone somewhere between melody and speech. His style insists that, however pretty the tune, it is always the message that matters most. It’s an attitude that has subsequently been adopted widely in rock – Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave – but is still rare in country music. It is one of the reasons why Cash has remained virtually a category unto himself.

Love, God, murder: these are not the only themes Cash has written and sung about in a career that is fast approaching its half-century. There have also been songs about trains, floods, guitars, teenage queens, household pets and boys with girls names. But the three subjects that give this three-disc anthology its title are unquestionably the big ones. Each has its own disc with an introductory note by Cash, along with a short essay by a guest author. (Appropriately, his wife June Carter contributes the one on Love; God and Murder are handled by U2’s Bono and director Quentin Tarantino, respectively.)

It is not Cash’s ‘greatest hits’, nor even his greatest recordings. Such a collection would have had to include classic Sun sides such as “Hey Porter” and “Get Rhythm”, songs too joyful for this set. It is often forgotten that Cash can be funny and fun, qualities that inevitably don’t get much of a look in here. Nevertheless it digs into his vast and less-celebrated Columbia catalogue and comes out with gold: the chain-gang worksong “Going To Memphis”, his own mini-epic “Ballad Of Barbara”, and the Sunday school rockabilly of “It Was Jesus”. There are the expected evergreens – “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, “I Still Miss Someone”, “The Long Black Veil” – and there are reminders of his recent fine work with producer Rick Rubin. (It’s no coincidence that Rubin – who cut his teeth producing rap records – knew exactly what to do with Cash’s voice.) And his Sun sides, while under-represented, are at least acknowledged with the inclusion of “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk The Line”, and “Belshazzar”.

For all but the faithful, the pious side of Cash has always been the hardest to take. And yet, with rare exceptions, the performances on the God disc don’t sound smug or self-righteous. In fact, they tend to be similar in tone to his death ballads, which is what makes the best of them so convincing. As Bono observes: “He sings like the thief who was crucified beside Christ.”

Cash has always seemed aware of his own mythology and at times taken it to corny extremes. But if this collection, handpicked by the Man in Black himself, exploits the mythology it does so persuasively, and with class. 

Tags: countrygospeljohnny cash

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