‘Legend of Johnny Cash’ does the man justice – Part 1

Leah Sewell

Johnny Cash’s tremulous vocals, twangy guitar playing and storytelling capabilities are all present in the compilation album, “The Legend of Johnny Cash,” released Oct. 25. All the perennial classics are contained on this disc, but the latter half eases into his later works, some of which can be recognized by 90s alternative lovers.

Cash’s earliest songs circa 1950s are engagingly narrative. Take one of my favorites, and track three on this album, “Folsom Prison Blues.” In this song Cash mourns imprisonment. The slow pace and low, low spots in Cash’s vocal range convey the loneliness and longing. But the song isn’t altogether depressing. After all, Cash was never really a resident of Folsom Prison.

Another of Cash’s early jewels on “The Legend” is “Big River,” an upbeat tune with a catchy intro. The opening guitar is characteristic of Cash: it is paradoxically twangy and dark. The story relayed through formulaic verses is a blues story, yet it is delivered playfully. Cash croons in that way he does with those breathless vowels: “I taught the weeping willow how to cry cry cry.” The singer competes for the love of a woman with none other than the Mississippi River itself. In the end he loses: “She loves you, big river, more than me.” There is something quintessentially American in “Big River.”

Of course, Cash’s best-known tune, “Ring of Fire,” would not be excluded from this album. I’ve never been particularly fond of the song. The mariachi style trumpet interjections are fun and jaunty. But the lyrics are overly simple. Take this little bit that contains too obvious rhyme: “I fell for you like a child / oh, but the fire went wild.” The decision to have female background singers cooing “Oooh-ooh-ooh” behind a song with such serious content was a poor one. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but “Ring of Fire” is not one of June Carter Cash’s best efforts at songwriting.

The latter half of the album has a marked difference. The 80s roll around at track 14, “Highwayman,” a collaboration with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The 80s style keyboards, cheesy electric blues riffs and saturating tone of melodrama is just too much for me. I had to skip through this one when I started getting “the bad goosebumps.”

“Delia’s Gone” is a somber and poignant song recorded in the early 90s that displays Cash’s tendency for darker music toward the end of his life. His covers of “Rusty Cage” (Soundgarden) and “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails) further illustrate this. Although these songs were recorded well past the prime of Cash’s career, they nonetheless prove that the man had great talent that wasn’t merely genre-specific, something he never lost.

“The Legend of Johnny Cash” runs the gamut of Cash’s best stuff. It’s a great album to prep yourself for the upcoming film, “Walk the Line,” in theatres this Friday. But from this album you also get an overwhelming sense of this complex man through his unique voice, his excellent storytelling and, of course, his matchless musical talent.