Friday, August 04, 2006

Cool Cash

You couldn't grow up in America in the past 45 years without hearing Johnny Cash on radio or TV. He had a persona that transcended his early rockabilly or country image. However, I never paid a lot of attention to Cash because he was just there, just like Ray Charles was just there, or the Kinks or The Who were "just there."

It wasn't until I read some reviews of Cash's album American Music IV: The Man Comes Around that I started to pay attention. When I listened to it for the first time I was deeply moved by both the choice of material and by Cash's sense of his own mortality.

So I was pleasantly surprised this summer by the release of American Music V: A Hundred Highways. I didn't know there was more material that Cash had recorded before his death. I understand there's even enough for a sixth CD next year.

That's good news for both of us: those of you who have been lifelong Johnny Cash fans, and those of us, like me, slow to appreciate him.

Cash's voice varies in quality from track to track on American Music V (as was the case with IV), and the best songs are those where he is in a voice closer to the one familiar to all of us from the songs "I Walk The Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues." Producer Rick Rubin should take a lot of credit, because the arrangements and interpretations of each song spotlights Cash's strong points, even when his voice isn't at full strength.

I bought American Music V a few weeks ago and it's been in more or less permanent rotation in my car CD player ever since. My favorite songs are his own song, "Like The 309," and Don Gibson's "A Legend In My Time." I don't dislike any of the songs on the CD, and coming up a close second as favorites are "Love's Been Good To Me," which I was shocked to see was written by the old schmaltzmeister Rod McKuen. "Four Strong Winds" by Ian Tyson (was the original by Ian and Sylvia? I've forgotten) is also a great cover.

Sometimes I've heard a song hundreds of times and I've stopped listening, if you know what I mean. That would describe "If You Could Read My Mind," Cash's cover of the old Gordon Lightfoot song. I liked it by Lightfoot, but Cash's version, quavering voice and all, has made me really hear it for the first time in years. That's the beauty of a great cover version. You have something very familiar reinterpreted, and made new.

In my local newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, music critic Dan Nailen, who also reviews punk rock, rap, hard rock and music I don't even try to describe, gave this CD an outstanding review. Paraphrasing him, he mentioned that there would be another CD next year and said if the material was as strong as this CD then Johnny Cash went out pretty close to the top of his game. Because of his background in rock the reviewer reminded me that there are really no genres for an artist like Johnny Cash; it's just American music.

What it's done for me is make me appreciate and listen to a very important artist, but one I'd been mostly ignoring for decades. My loss, but I'm trying to catch up!

Ciao for now, El Postino

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