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MUSIC REVIEW

Essential Johnny Cash

Good Ole Cowboy Music

By Allison Lewis

STAFF WRITER

The Essential Johnny Cash is like the “Do, Re, Mi” of American music. It all began in Memphis, Tennessee, my hometown. At the tiny Sun Studios, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins introduced the world to rock and roll. When this music first hit the airwaves it was like nothing else in the music world. With his rockabilly style, Cash brought country into mainstream and helped create rock and roll.

A dual compact disc set, The Essential Johnny Cash is a collection of 36 of Cash’s hits, beginning with his early Sun Studio recordings -- the folky, rockabilly songs of the 1950s -- and moving through the years to Cash’s 1993 work with U2.

You’ve heard these traveling songs before. My father plays them in the car on road trips. Combining humor, honesty, love, and a bit of preachiness, Cash’s songs are like stories, with character and plot, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken. Cash’s deep, rich voice, backed by Luther Perkin’s gorgeously simple “walking” guitar, is like John Wayne on horseback: you can’t help but admire the style.

“Hey Porter,” Johnny’s first hit, was recorded at Sun Records in 1955. Johnny’s simple, repetitive lyrics about a train ride into Tennessee, follow the chugging guitar music like he’s actually on a train. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” is about a “young cowboy named Billy Joe.” Billy Joe thinks he’s man enough to wear his guns to town. He goes drinking, gets in a gunfight, and gets shot. Again, Cash’s simple, stark lyrics deliver his theme with style, feeling, and a bit of humor.

I could sing “Ring of Fire” all day. “I fell down to a burning ring of fire/I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher/And it burns, burns, burns/The ring of fire/The ring of fire.” Need I say more? “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” is a bit churchy for me. Still, don’t skip this song -- it’s genuine Southern folk music, and it’s probably like nothing you’ve heard before.

Bob Dylan wrote the beautiful “Girl From the North Country.” Cash and Dylan combine their rough-hewn voices in a simple, charming melody that stays with you. “If I Were a Carpenter” is a fast and catchy love song that Johnny sings with his wife, June Carter Cash. I grabbed my boyfriend and made him dance with me to it.

“A Boy Named Sue” is, hands-down, Cash’s best. His spoken-word lyrics tell the story of a man who attempts to kill the father who named him Sue. Johnny yells like he’s in a bar fight. “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you gonna die!” I won’t tell you how it ends; you’ll have to listen to the song to find out.

I recommend blasting this album in your room so your next-door neighbors will wonder what the hell you’re listening to. Play it for a friend -- Cash’s songs are great conversation starters -- or try to sing “A Boy Named Sue” or “Ring of Fire,” in Johnny Cash style. No one will know.

I don’t recommend trying to do homework to this irresistible album -- you’ll end up listening to the music instead. Cash sings like a cowboy, and tells his story with simple, memorable lyrics. The Essential Johnny Cash has 36 catchy, funny, and entertaining songs I love. You can’t help singing to this album, and you won’t want to stop listening.