Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Johnny Cash

  • Johnny Cash at San Quentin [Columbia, 1969] B-
  • Greatest Hits Volume 3 [Columbia, 1978] B-
  • Rockabilly Blues [Columbia, 1980] B-
  • Columbia Records 1958-1986 [Columbia, 1987] A-
  • Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town [Mercury, 1987] B+
  • The Sun Years [Rhino, 1990] A
  • The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 [Columbia, 1992] A
  • American Recordings [American, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Unchained [American, 1996] *
  • American III: Solitary Man [American, 2000] **
  • American IV: The Man Comes Around [American, 2002] A-
  • The Mystery of Life [Mercury, 2003] Choice Cuts
  • The Legend [Columbia/Legacy, 2005] A
  • American V: A Hundred Highways [Lost Highway/American, 2006] **
  • American VI: Ain't No Grave [American, 2010] A
  • Out Among the Stars [Columbia/Legacy, 2014] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Johnny Cash at San Quentin [Columbia, 1969]
Much inferior to Folsom Prison and Greatest Hits, which is where to start if you're just getting into Cash. Contains only nine songs, one of which is performed twice. Another was written by Bob Dylan. B-

Greatest Hits Volume 3 [Columbia, 1978]
In 1968, his marriage to June Carter and his Folsom Prison album made Cash look like the greatest artist in country music, but who today would think of ranking him with George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard? A diminished singer, writer, and public presence, he hasn't even put together enough singles for a worthwhile best-of. Here are two duets with Waylon and one with June, two decent love songs by others and three flabby ones by himself, and you know what you'll remember next day? "Oney" and "One Piece at a Time," both about working the assembly line. Somehow I don't expect him to take the hint. B-

Rockabilly Blues [Columbia, 1980]
Merely by copping to the magic concept "rockabilly," Cash can kick up comeback talk. And comparison with his rockabilly rockabilly for Sun (where he was always the countriest) establishes that by the standards of an ordinary mortal he's a better singer now--more flexible physically, more expressive emotionally. But the technique is a cover for what's lost, probably forever--stolid depth as immovable presence. Same goes for the arrangements--defiantly understated for Nashville, they're customized rock-country up against the austerities of the Tennessee Two. In other words, an honorable country album with some pretty good songs on it. B-

Columbia Records 1958-1986 [Columbia, 1987]
Turns out he was always a folkie, a damn good one despite such lovable pop trifles as "A Boy Named Sue" and its decade-late follow-up "The Baron." The whole first side was recorded in his first seven months with the label; in fact, three of the five tracks were cut and wrapped on August 13, 1958. By contract, exactly one selection was busy being born between February '71 and March '79, the country trifle "One Piece at a Time," and while I'd substitute its assembly-line companion piece "Oney" for Nick Lowe's December '79 "Without Love" (which has more assembly line in it than anyone's letting on), that gets the trajectory of his career about right. Lately he's righted himself some, but it's the ageless stuff he's best at--John Henry and Ira Hayes, "Orange Blossom Special" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and let us not forget "Highway Patrolman," which proves Bruce Springsteen is Woody Guthrie if anything ever did. A-

Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town [Mercury, 1987]
I'd have let his contract lapse too--the pathetic Class of '55 proved he was a has-been, huzzahs and all. But he was holding a few in reserve, like definitive Elvis Costello and Guy Clark, overdue James Talley and (why did nobody ever think of this?) Ernie Ford, and the song-factory prizes any Nashvillean with a mind to can turn up: "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town," a hit, and "Heavy Metal (Don't Mean Rock and Roll to Me)," recommended to Mikhail Gorbachev for Goskino's next tractor movie. And then there are the two originals, which convince me he's still a has-been. B+

The Sun Years [Rhino, 1990]
Here at the onset, hitched to a spare Sun aesthetic that's equally apparent in young Carl Perkins, young Elvis, even young Jerry Lee, Cash's natural fusion of folk and country is effortless. Whether covering Lonnie Donegan's novelty remake of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" or stroking the market with "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" or checking in with classics like "I Walk the Line" and "Train of Love" and "Get Rhythm" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" and "Folsom Prison Blues," he's down with the common man--implacably, unostentatiously, without having to think about it. And terse, incredibly terse: check "Come In Stranger," which tops all the road-babe songs it anticipates at 1:38. A

The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 [Columbia, 1992]
As a critic, a surrogate consumer, and a mortal whose four-score and hoping dwindles too quickly as it is, I hate boxes. But once I'd steeled myself for this 75-song monster, I almost downed it in one sitting. Like Bo Diddley, another minimalist who improves with time, Cash gains monumentality as one spare track builds off another toward infinity. Nashville icon though he may be, Cash's Dylan connection no longer seems anomalous--he's certain to be numbered among the century's great folksingers. The tuneless delivery and stark-to-received arrangements always serve the purposes of an artist who puts words first. He's as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie if not Irwin Silber, and if he doesn't prove that Jack Clement and Shel Silverstein are people's composers, which he may, he certainly establishes that John R. Cash is. A

American Recordings [American, 1994]
"Delia's Gone" Choice Cuts

Unchained [American, 1996]
"If I can't make these songs my own, they don't belong," say the notes, which always belong ("Mean Eyed Cat," "I Never Picked Cotton") *

American III: Solitary Man [American, 2000]
The song alone ("Nobody," "Before My Time," "Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone]"). **

American IV: The Man Comes Around [American, 2002]
The selection here is at once so obvious and so inappropriate it feels redemptive--as if that old softy Rick Rubin gently advised his fast-failing charge that if there was ever a song he wanted to sing he'd better not put it off till next time, 'cause there probably wasn't gonna be one. In fact this is Cash's second "Danny Boy," just his first croaky one (at the Kettle of Fish in heaven, Dave Van Ronk is mad he didn't do one first). He's recorded the evil-minded campfire chestnut "Sam Hall" before too. But Cash kills "In My Life" as hard as he kills Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, and though upon reflection Ewan MacColl wrote "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," you'd have thought Roberta Flack defolkified it forever until Cash got his heart on it. Only the pomposities of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Desperado" resist his advances. And first and best comes the newly written title tune, a look at death as cold as "Under Ben Bulben." All that could top it would be American V: Send in the Clowns. A-

The Mystery of Life [Mercury, 2003]
"The Mystery of Life" Choice Cuts

The Legend [Columbia/Legacy, 2005]
Cash recorded almost as much as Elvis and has been reissued more than God, but this quadruple will satisfy most of us, in part because we can think of things we miss--"Next in Line"! "Come In Stranger"! "Singin' in Viet Nam Talking Blues"! "The Mystery of Life"! We all have our own Johnny Cash, that's one of his strengths, which means we learn a little something from other people's, as in the previously unreleased Billy Joe Shaver duet "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ." The box omits the stark Rick Rubin stuff of his old age, which made him a "legend" if anything did. But when I test-drove the confusingly titled single-disc The Legend of Johnny Cash, topped off with a few renowned Rubin songs, the sudden dropoff reinforced my reservations about his late-life need to let his charisma stand in for his voice. A

American V: A Hundred Highways [Lost Highway/American, 2006]
Dead man singing ("Like the 309," "God's Gonna Cut You Down"). **

American VI: Ain't No Grave [American, 2010]
One of those nearness-of-death albums, a category that for me includes not only Warren Zevon's The Wind and John Hurt's Last Sessions, but also Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Neil Young's Prairie Wind. Definitely both the grimmest and the most hopeful, which taken together means maybe the best. The big difference is that it's more direct than any of them, keyed to Cash's rewrite of I Corinthians 15:55: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory." Fortified by his Christian faith, he lends a cracked gravity to souvenirs of cornball sentiment ranging in tone from Ed McCurdy's political "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" to Queen Lili'uokalani's escapist "Aloha Oe," which close an album that also includes the traditional title song, a Sheryl Crow number about redemption, "Cool Water," and the tenderest "For the Good Times" I've ever heard. Never mind sex under the stars--John will settle for a sickbed cuddle. As Queen Lili'uokalani put it, it'll be a solace "until we meet again." A

Out Among the Stars [Columbia/Legacy, 2014]
The main reason you marvel that material this good was left in the can for 30 years is how many country albums settle for less. But the main reason the material itself astonishes is that Cash is so on his game in what was historically a fallow, coming-down-again biographical moment. In one novelty he gets it on with a chivalrously unnamed Minnie Pearl; in another, he puts a hundred bucks down on a Cadillac and drives it off a cliff on his last date with his ex-wife. Two love songs achieve high seriousness without whispering mawk. And Cash gets so much more out of Adam Mitchell's death-by-cop title song than Merle Haggard or Hazel Dickens. His natural gravity helps. But n.b., Rick Rubin: so does his possession of his bottomless pit of a voice. B+

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