Back in black

Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are still our greatest Storytellers

The record begins with the familiar, famous introduction: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he rumbles, his voice as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. He tries to add something to the trademark, but the crowd, clapping and cheering the presence of myth, doesn't let him. Then there's another man's voice, which is as nasal and affable as Cash's is fierce and penetrating: "Hi, I'm Willie Nelson." More cheers, as though the man wearing pigtails and pot-reek could be anyone else.

"So what do you want to do first?" Willie asks Johnny, then immediately leaps into "Ghost Riders in the Sky"--a song about demons "with hooves made of steel" and "horns black and shiny"; it might as well be their theme song. Their acoustic guitars tangle like hundred-year-old vines in a garden, while their voices--neither pretty, both so beautiful--clash and waltz together into the darkness.

And so begins Storytellers, an album of material Cash and Nelson recorded last year for VH1's series featuring musicians and their guitars and their tall tales of inspiration and explanation. For 51 minutes and 42 seconds, the two old friends share a stage, trade war stories, exchange a few jokes as well-worn as Nelson's guitar, and join each other on a trip down amnesia lane. They know each other's songs as though they were their own: While one man plays lead guitar and sings the songs he crafted from gold and granite (Nelson with "Crazy" or "Night Life"; Cash with "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Drive On"), the other keeps pace and provides the soft rhythm. They're old sparring partners who know each other's next move three moves in advance; they're Highwaymen from way back who know every back road--there are no surprises left around each bend, only revelations.

In the grand scheme of things, the music industry being what it is and isn't, Storytellers will be regarded as a minor release; it is, after all, one more disc that offers one more retelling of songs so familiar they're part of the common language--who among us doesn't know every chord change in "On the Road Again?" It's the soundtrack to a televised special that aired on cable, and besides, audiences long ago stopped buying Cash and Nelson records; they've abandoned the outlaw heroes for the pretty-boy and cover-girl zeroes who come and go quicker than Johnny Holmes.

But the cynic who discounts Storytellers for those reasons misses out on one of the year's finest records, a soundtrack that needs no visuals to make its point. If there's anything in this world better than Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash whining and moaning over nothing but acoustic guitars and the in-between silences, then I have yet to find it. Nelson plays like a honky-tonk Django Reinhardt, his picking so precise and angular; he finds notes most musicians don't even know exist. Listen to his "Funny How Times Slips Away" on Storytellers--the song has never sounded so solemn and intimate. And Cash's voice, even at the age of 65, lands a more solid punch than a room full of studio musicians shadow-boxing behind him, even when he seems to gasp for air.

If for no other reason than this, Storytellers should be cherished: It will be Johnny Cash's last album of "new" material for a while. In October 1997, during a book tour promoting his self-titled autobiography, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease; the tour was promptly canceled. A few weeks later, he contracted pneumonia--only to have doctors inform him that what they thought was Parkinson's was, in reality, something called Shy-Drager's Syndrome, which attacks and often kills the nervous system. (Though the National Enquirer did report last week that Cash, recovering in Jamaica, recently performed two songs for a crowd of VIPs.)

At 66, he's a man whose best work is still in front of him, but just out of reach: Only weeks ago, he was awarded with a Grammy for his 1996 album Unchained, the second of his acoustic showdowns with producer Rick Rubin, a man better known for turning the Red Hot Chili Peppers into wan-hit wonders. To celebrate the occasion, Rubin took out an ad in Billboard magazine thanking the academy for this award: "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support."

The text was accompanied by a full-page photo of Cash taken in 1970 during a performance at San Quentin prison in California: He is scowling in the old photo, shooting his middle finger at the camera as though it's a loaded weapon. The snapshot is vintage, but the sentiment is raw: Johnny Cash says, Fuck you.

Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but--merely another country-music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue," and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks--the Six Flags and Billy Bob's of this world. And, sure enough, he'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and Country.

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