Johnny Cash,
Cash Unearthed
(American Recordings/Lost Highway, 2003)

There are tributes and there are tributes. Little did we realise as this fantastic boxed set was being released last year that it would prove to be the final output from the Man in Black. Sad as that may be, it does stand as a unique tribute to the man and his music.

Over the course of five CDs we are treated -- and I do mean treated -- to a showcase of the writing, performing and interpreting talent of Johnny Cash as never before.

It is hard to believe that Cash is dead. His voice and sound are immortal.

Spanning early rock 'n' roll to country to pure folk, he was probably one of the most prolific singers ever, and yet in many ways he was unknown. He never had the publicity of Elvis, the Beatles or Abba but his repertoire probably outshines all of them combined.

We can all recall that a little over a decade ago Cash was thought to be a spent force when he met Rick Rubin. Two worlds collided -- country and rap -- and the explosion is reverberating still. Who would have thought of putting those disparate characters together, and even if they did who could have predicted the outcome? Rubin gave Cash new breath and inspired him to expand his repertoire and also revisit some of his great music of the past.

The first disc on this set has the beautiful simplicity of Cash's voice and a guitar backing. Over 18 tracks titled "Who's Gonna Cry," you will cry. You cry with delight. You cry with thanks. You cry as you hear plaintive lyrics from that gravel voice.

It's great to hear Cash interpret "Just the Other Side of Nowhere" and "Banks of the Ohio," two standards reborn. My favourite here is Kristofferson's "Casey's Last Ride." It still has me stumped as to meaning but it is a great song, well sung.

Volume two is "Trouble in Mind" and it gives us 16 more golden tracks. I though no one could sing "Heart of Gold" other than Neil Young -- I was wrong. Cash also gives us tracks by Steve Earle, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. I would buy this set just for the final track on this CD: Leonard Cohen's classic "Bird on a Wire." But it is no ordinary version. This is Johnny Cash with a full orchestra and it is magic.

"Redemption Songs" is the third album here. Again the maestro confounds our idea of what he is all about. He takes the classic "Hard Times" and reinvents it. Listen and weep as he gives his Cash soul to tracks like "You'll Never Walk Alone." Yes, the song from Showboat. On Cat Steven's "Father and Son" he is joined by Fiona Apple, and on "Cindy" by Nick Cave.

He returns to his gospel persona on the fourth CD, "My Mother's Hymnbook." Here Cash does what few singers can achieve. He sings gospel with a genuine feeling but never sounds as if he is anything less that totally committed to the sentiment. This is religion as it should be -- enjoyable while telling us some basic truths.

The final CD is "Best of Cash on American" and it takes samples from the phenomenal releases in the last decade. Who would have expected the elder of country to sing a U2 song? Well he takes "One" to the limits and transforms it. He also takes "Solitary Man" from the pen of Neil Diamond and makes it a Cash crop. He also reprises "Bird on the Wire," this time with a spare accompaniment -- one lyric, but two songs.

Ironically the penultimate song is the old standard "We'll Meet Again," a feat we will not manage on this Earth but if there is a heaven and we are lucky enough to get there we will meet him again and understand what paradise is. Meanwhile this is a five-CD slice of Valhalla.

As if the music was not enough, American Records has produced an outstanding package. You get a small hardcover book with notes on the man and music with some excellent photographs. The CDs are slotted into sleeves of another hardcover book with track listings and photos. Then both books are in a slipcase and, yes, for the man in black it's all in black.

If you do not buy another CD this year invest in this tribute, history, gift, showcase, collector's item, treasure.

- Rambles
written by Nicky Rossiter
published 22 May 2004

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