Johnny Cash

Perhaps no one has summed up Johnny Cash better than Richard M. Nixon: "Yours is truly the voice of America, as rich and strong as our nation itself." Cash's nearly 50-year recording career has produced an enormous body of essential American music, most of which has been spottily issued domestically on CD. Columbia's yearlong reissue program, celebrating Cash's 70th birthday, began in February with the release of The Essential Johnny Cash. The 36-track, double-disc set is a whirlwind ride through Cash's late-'50s sides for Sun and his extensive work for Columbia. As an overview and guide to the reissue program, it fits neatly between single-disc hits collections and the more expansive (and similarly titled) boxed set, The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983.

Those who've enjoyed the highlights will find each of the five reissued original titles essential in its own way. Each album is remastered and expanded with new essays, bonus tracks and a newly penned introduction from Cash. His 1959 Columbia debut, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, picks up where the Sun recordings left off, though this time in superbly recorded stereo. The Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant), augmented by a studio drummer and the Jordanaires, support Cash as he invents the Americana songbook. Country and western ("I Still Miss Someone," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"), train songs ("One More Ride"), rural celebrations ("Pickin' Time") and gospel tunes ("That's Enough") form a seamless blend under Cash's command. Bonus tracks include the superb acoustic-backed "Walkin' the Blues."

The same year's Hymns by Johnny Cash is considered the album for which Cash came to Columbia (or left Sun, depending on who's talking). Sun's owner, Sam Phillips, didn't see a market for an album of sacred songs, but Columbia had no such misgivings and sold a half-million copies. Cash invested himself deeply in these declarations of faith,and his baritone praise (set against stark accompaniment) displayed a growing maturity and distance from the pop orientation of his Sun days. The mix of originals and standards became mainstays of his repertoire, providing a moral focal point for his shows and an oft-needed lifeline for his soul.

At the turn of the decade Cash offered up Ride This Train, "a stirring travelogue of America in story and song." Rather than the expected album of train songs, the eight selections, including titles by Merle Travis, Tex Ritter and Red Foley, offer a potpourri of Americana: outlaws, lumberjacks, coal miners, chain gangs, immigrants and the joys of small-town living. Tying the songs together with narrative and steam-train sounds, Cash invented a form he'd revisit throughout his career. This reissue is filled out with four bonus tracks, among them a previously unissued recording of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver."

Cash had waxed more than a dozen albums for Columbia by the time of 1965's Orange Blossom Special. Though the stirring train rhythm of the title track recalls the singer's first Sun single ("Hey Porter," included on the Essential release), new compositions and a trio of Dylan titles show a continuing evolution. The song list is a microcosm of Cash's eclecticism, including Carter Family classics ("Wildwood Flowers"), spirituals ("Amen"), narratives ("Long Black Veil") and standards ("Danny Boy"). Cash's introductory notes include a poignant memory of "Orange Blossom Special" writer Ervin Rouse, and the three bonus tracks feature an additional Carter Family tune, "Engine 143."

Cash and June Carter had duetted before (notably their 1965 hit with Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe," reprised here) but had yet to share equal billing. Having toured with Cash as an opening act and harmony singer, 1967's Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter gave Carter the chance to step out as an equal. With their marriage still a year away, the sassy call-and-response of "Jackson" and "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" shows the strong emotional bond that was already in place. Three co-writes, a toe-tapping remake of Richard and Mimi Fariña's "Pack Up Your Sorrows" and a pair of Ray Charles covers speak to their shared musical adventurousness. Carl Perkins' original liner notes are affectionate and funny, and Cash's and Carter's contemporary introductions show the flame still burning brightly.

Over the decades, Cash's sound, forged on his very first single at Sun, has proven a remarkably spacious and fertile ground in which to develop his genre-bounding songbook. Though his showmanship sharpened and his musical reach extended over the years, the seeds of his entire Columbia catalog are plain to hear on his 1959 debut. While the Essential collection serves as a Cliff's Notes introduction, the five original LPs display noteworthy facets of Cash's musicality. Taken as a set, they paint a moving, richly detailed picture of an American musical icon.