Oh bury me not

Johnny Cash sings of Love, God, Murder and how all three make him a legend

"Johnny Cash is a righteous dude, and he keeps righteous company with June Carter Cash and the Carter Family," he continues. "But it's the outlaw in him we love...the 'thief' who would break and enter your heart, and leave you with a nagging question, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?'"

Tarantino, who used Cash's "Tennessee Stud" in his film Jackie Brown, is more succinct in his opinion of Cash and his music.

"In a country that thinks it's divided by race, where actually, it's divided by economics, Johnny Cash's songs of hillbilly thug life go right to the heart of the American underclass," Tarantino writes. "...I've often wondered if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash's tales of backwoods thug life. I don't know, but what I do know is Johnny Cash knows."

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash": The Man in Black, looking lost in the '60s.
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash": The Man in Black, looking lost in the '60s.
No longer the "Tennessee Stud": Johnny Cash, older and wiser, recording Unchained.
David Gahr
No longer the "Tennessee Stud": Johnny Cash, older and wiser, recording Unchained.

Of course, Cash himself sums it up best: "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," he writes in the liner notes for the God disc. "It's about sharing, praise, wonder, and wisdom."

At some point on Love, God, Murder, there is a perfect example of all three, whether it's when he's pleading for "Redemption," confessing that "I Tremble For You," or strung out on the "Cocaine Blues." Still, it's strange to see and hear them segregated, since Cash's songs have never been that black and white. Even though he'd shoot a man in Reno "just to watch him die," he'd hang his head and cry--from loneliness, sure, but mostly from guilt--when he wound up in prison. His characters were much like he was: They tried to do the right thing, but rarely did. For a large chunk of his career, Cash was a devout Christian and an even more devoted abuser of drugs and alcohol, a self-destructive combination that led him to the brink at least once or twice. In 1967, he even crawled into a cave in Tennessee, expecting never to crawl out again.

While Love, God, Murder consists almost exclusively of previously released material (four of the set's 48 tracks--a mono version of "Delia's Gone," "The Sound of Laughter," "My Old Faded Rose," and "I Tremble For You"--were unavailable in the United States before this collection), it does offer something truly new. Though Cash's name has graced dozens of best-and-rest-ofs, never before has his entire career been represented, from his mid-'50s beginnings on Sun Records to his mid-'90s resurgence. Better yet, for the first time in forever, his songs are removed from behind the thick museum glass and allowed to breathe fresh air.

If nothing else, Love, God, Murder is proof that Cash is as vital today as he was when he first recorded "Cry, Cry, Cry" for Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1955. More recent tracks such as "The One Rose (That's Left In My Heart)" and "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" are every bit as strong and vibrant as "I Walk The Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues," both of which were recorded more than four decades ago. In fact, Cash's lived-in voice makes those songs even better, each word wrapped around a baritone warm and deep as a mother's love. Cash hasn't hung up his guns yet; he just doesn't have to use them as much.

Listening to Love, God, Murder, it's impossible to separate then from now--his voice and stranglehold on each song were always there. Actually, you could just compare the previously unissued version of "Delia's Gone" on Love, God, Murder to the one he recorded for American Recordings. Though more than three decades separates them (the one on Murder was laid down in July 1961), you'd never know it from listening. Well, maybe the 29-year-old Cash sounds a little more likely to shoot the "lowdown and triflin'" Delia.

Other than that, both versions sound like each other...and nothing else. All the years, trends, and drugs that came and went, and none of it has affected him, because he's always just been Johnny Cash. He has been inducted into both the Country and Rock and Roll halls of fame, yet he's never fit comfortably into either category. Whether he was backed by Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant (his original band, The Tennessee Two) or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who accompanied him on Unchained), it has always sounded like Johnny Cash. Whether he was singing 19th century spirituals or songs by Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, and Beck, it's always sounded like Johnny Cash. Whether it's just him and a guitar or him and U2, it's always sounded like Johnny Cash. He's his own genre, definitely his own man.

"If I hear something that's comfortable to me, I'll do it," Cash told New Times LA. "I've got an open mind and an open heart for music. It's the closed minds in this business that limit the potential, and there's so much of that out here in Nashville. Minds are closed down to whatever's not gettin' on this gravy train and ridin' today. And I just hate that kind of thing. I just always have and always will. I've always been a Memphis rebel. I never did do it the way they do it down on Music Row." Cash has never done it the way they do it anywhere. And he probably never will.

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