Wise Man in Black

The next classic box set is The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), consisting of three CDs or tapes and a biographical essay. Contrary to the image held by some Yankees that country singers are hicks, Cash is well-read, sensitive, and interested in ideas. Having prevailed through drug addiction, divorce, parenthood, religious conversion, and all the travails of being on the road for nearly 40 years, he has arrived at something that can only be called wisdom. The Man in Black wears the archetype of the benevolent grandfather of Nashville like a pair of black stovepipe Levis.

The odd thing about Cash, however, is that he seems to have started off wise. Whether singing the most primitive and exhilarating rockabilly in his early Sun sessions (where Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis also first recorded) or the slick string arrangements of the late sixties or the neo-rockabilly of the early eighties, he sounds exactly like Johnny Cash. He had his style from day one. His warm, quavering baritone seems to promise meaning and compassion whatever personal hell you may be slogging through. Especially not to be missed are his live concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin Prison, which reveal a communication between performer and audience of almost unbearable intensity. Somehow it just makes sense that Johnny Cash was the only guy hip enough during the sixties to hang with both Bob Dylan and Richard Nixon.