Johnny Cash – The Number Ones (review)

Johnny Cash – The Greatest: The Number Ones (Deluxe Edition) (Sony/Legacy) review

You don’t realize how many great songs Johnny Cash had until you see a collection like this

Continuing a year-long celebration of what would’ve been Cash’s 80th birthday, Sony/Legacy has released a series of CDs dubbed “The Greatest,” covering several aspects of his career – there are other volumes, including those covering country, duets and gospel – but The Number Ones is just that, his biggest, and best-loved songs.

Since Cash never hit the top spot on the Pop charts (although “A Boy Named Sue” did go all the way to #2), we’re talking Country charts here.  Yet, the country music label seems too confining for his music.  Very few of the 19 tracks assembled here contain fiddles or steel guitar.  Some rock pretty good, like “One Piece at a Time,” while others contain strings, like the plaintive “Flesh and Blood.”  Most of them do feature the “ka-chunka” Johnny Cash rhythm that was a signature of so many of his recordings.

The first seven tracks here come from the first three years of his recording legacy.  The opening cut, “I Walk the Line,” is as haunting a song ever to top the charts.  The warbling electric guitar plays counterpoint to the scratching acoustic guitar that lays down the beat, while Cash’s reverbed vocal, deep and gravelly, sings over top.  Cash wasn’t technically a gifted singer – he had a limited range.  Yet, this played to his advantage, and made him seem much more real than any vocalist who could hit multiple octaves.  And, his plain singing made for excellent storytelling.  Whether it be the slicked-up “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” or the sparse “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” he had a way with words.

And while all of these songs topped the Country charts, Cash continually rebelled against the expectations of that genre.  One of his most-famous songs, “Ring of Fire,” features prominent mariachi horns, something seemingly unfathomable for a Nashville hit single.  While his contemporaries were schmoozing it up at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash reached out to some of the most notorious prisons in the country to do concerts for their inmates.  Two examples of those shows are featured here – a live rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the aforementioned “A Boy Named Sue,” written by Shel Silverstein, and taken from At San Quentin, Cash’s only number one LP on the mainstream charts.

Cash had an unparalleled ability to take any song and embody it – as if the lyrics were coming directly from his experiences.  “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” penned by Kris Kristofferson, is an excellent example, the words of an addict hit pretty close to home for him.  Yet, he could spin a yarn and get a good chuckle as well, like “One Piece at a Time,’ where he manages to steal the parts of a car over many years, but has trouble making the pieces all work.

If there’s one thing that runs through this entire set, it’s honesty.  Whether he wrote them or not, you can tell he believed in them.  It’s that “man of the people” mentality that has continued his legacy, even after his death.

As an added bonus, The Number Ones contains a bonus DVD featuring ten live performances from the short-lived Johnny Cash Show.  These have never been seen since their original broadcast back in 1969-1970, and show off a more humorous side to the artist.  Especially good is the live rendition of “Daddy Sang Bass,” with help from June Carter.

Of course, there are some key songs missing here.  “Jackson,” his battle of the sexes teaming with June Carter, was saved for the Duets collection.  These tracks concentrate on his Columbia years, so you don’t get any of the stripped-down work he did with producer Rick Rubin during the last years of his life.  But, those are stark and are mostly an acquired taste (kind of like Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin).  The Number Ones showcases a legendary performer at the peak of his powers.  And, it reminds us that there will never be another Johnny Cash.  –Tony Peters