The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-83

Johnny Cash

Legacy Records, 1992



What defines a Legend?

- A musician's or group's music that is well-liked.

- Admired by other musical styles performers.

- Distinguished as a legend while still alive.

- Still performing after all these years.

All of these items relate to country's Johnny Cash.

Many groups and artists have become more popular after they break up, or even worse, after they're dead. (It seems that Jim Morrison and The Doors became more famous after Morrison's death. Even Stevie Ray Vaughan's "legend" status acheived higher status after he died.) And, there are other legends kept performing until their last breath of air. (Two names come to mind: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Frank performed till a ripe old age of 83. Elvis never lived as long, but it would of been great to see him still performing if he was still alive today, at age 63.)

The Essential Johnny Cash Box Set covers the years 1955-1983, where Cash first recorded records for Sam Phillips' Sun Records Label. From this period (1955-1958), the most famous song was "I Walk The Line." Both Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash had similar beginnings in sound: They both started with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and their music was mostly hillbilly/country music. And both Elvis and Johnny moved on to big recording labels, and the rest as they say, is history. (Elvis went to RCA Victor, Cash went to Columbia.)

However, Johnny Cash's music dealt with more of the dark sides of life. Cash was from a poor family, and he did have his troubles with the law. Cash was labeled "The Man In Black," with his hard stern looks and lyrics of hard times and troubles. Relating his experiences to music seemed to fit country music, as he wrote or co-wrote many of the songs contained in this box set (39 of 75). Relating to "dark" times, blues music is also best to relate to hard times. "Walking The Blues" (written by Cash) is a great example of blues music.

Another song written by Cash, "Rock Island Line" is a song I remember growing up in grade school. His version is a lot faster than the way we used to sing it. Another "dark" song is "Doin' My Time" (surprisingly NOT written by Cash), as it relates to the hard-working-man for the love of a woman. Where this song may not relate to the breaking of the law, these songs have that potential: "Folsom Prison Blues" (the original Sun version) and the famous Columbia label live version tells the story of prison life. And another popular prison-related song, "San Quentin #2," Cash sings, "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you."

These live recordings were taken from the live concert recorded at San Quentin, with many prisoners in the audience. As soon as Cash sang how he hated San Quentin, you hear the prisoners roar with applause.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And there are the songs that feature stories, like the famous "A Boy Named Sue." It was also recorded at the San Quentin concert, where a young man lives his life in troubled times, because his father named him Sue. Another "story" song is "One Piece At A Time," where the story here is where an auto mechanic builds his own car with many pieces (he steals from the shop) from other cars. This car has so many different pieces from different years' cars, as Cash sings at the end, "What model is it? It's a '49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '54, '55, '56, '57, '58, '59 automobile. It's a '60, '61, ...." as it fades out. This song is sung in the same sense of "A Boy Named Sue."

Even story songs like "The Rebel--Johnny Yuma," "The Big Battle," "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes," and "The Legend Of John Henry's Hammer" are great story lines dealing with other characters and events: Johnny Yuma, The Civil War, and John Henry.

Like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash had an interest in gospel music. "(They'll Be) Peace In The Valley" (a song Elvis also covered) and "Were You There (When They Cruciified My Lord)" are brief areas in the Johnny Cash Gospel section, and they are just as great as the Cash standards.

What also makes this box set so great, is that Cash records songs by other well-known artists:

- Charlie Rich's "Thanks A Lot"

- Carl Perkins' "The Ballad Of Boot Hill" and "Daddy Sang Bass"

- Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man"

- Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Last Time"

- The Rolling Stones' "No Expectations"

- Rodney Crowell's "Bull Rider"

- Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman"

- Nick Lowe's "Without Love"

And let us not forget some other famous tunes:

- "Ring Of Fire" -- a song that is never tiring. The horns are just great; something never used in Country Music at the time.

- "(Ghost) Riders In The Sky" -- a song that has been covered by many country and rock acts. Both Cash's and the group The Outlaws are the ones that stand out in my mind.

- "Jackson" -- many songs relating to a city in one of the states in the good 'ol USA: (Jackson, Mississippi, I believe).

- "Busted" -- a song that was recorded by Ray Charles.

(All of these famous songs listed were NOT written by Cash; neither was "A Boy Named Sue.")

And one more song that I always enjoy listening to is "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog," where it relates to the story of a dirty old dog (the animal, I take it, 'course it could relate to a human...) causing trouble wherever he goes, where he never leaves the chickens alone.

Cash is still recording today, and an amazing story was the fact that his 1994 American Recordings album was released on American Records, a label that normally features hard rock/heavy metal groups like Danzig and The Black Crowes; likewise hip-hop/rap artists like Sir Mix-A-Lot. Danzig was quoted as saying that he never liked anyone else's music, except for Johnny Cash.

Even in 1994 and beyond, Cash's new releases have received great reviews. His most recent release is a concert with Willie Nelson for VH-1 Storytellers.

I often wonder if the Travelling Wilburys will replace Roy Orbison. Even though replacing Orbison would be extremely hard, it would be best to replace a legend with another legend. Cash would be a good contender for the job. ("See Ruby Fall" from the box set was written by Cash and Orbison.)

Johnny Cash is a Legend. His credential status continues to be great today, as it was back in previous decades. It will be a very sad day when Cash does leave us. He is currently having health problems, but that doesn't stop him from performing.

Obviously I couldn't review every single song from this box set, but every song is great, as The Essential Johnny Cash Box Set truly defines the best years of Cash, and from those years the best songs from The Man In Black, The Legend, Johnny Cash. Covering 25 years of music, and still growing strong.

Rating: A

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© 1998 Eric E5S16 and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Legacy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.