Classic Man in Black Albums Back on Shelves

Few artists in the history of popular American music have appealed to such a broad spectrum of individuals as the inimitable Johnny Cash.

By the time Cash left Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in 1958, The Man in Black had already established himself as a major force on both the country and pop charts with hits such as “I Walk the Line,” and “Guess Things Happen That Way.” However, his best work was far from behind him. To celebrate Cash’s 70th birthday Columbia Records has chosen to re-release five of his finest recordings from his tenure on the label.

The Fabulous Johnny Cash, his 1959 Columbia debut, ranks as one of Cash’s finest albums. Still augmenting his rich baritone with the boom-chicka-boom sound that he patented while at Sun with the Tennessee Two, Cash turned in a collection that boasts timeless country standards, such as the self-penned “I Still Miss Someone” and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.”

Cash has recorded more gospel tunes than just about anybody save for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Hymns by Johnny Cash is solid stuff sung with strong conviction; however, the female cooing behind him gets tiresome, and the heavy bass string plucking doesn’t quite fit as well as it does on Cash’s secular recordings.

With a voice that truly needs no accompaniment, Cash is most effective as a gospel singer when left alone with his guitar. (Lend an ear to “Why Me?” from American Recordings.) Unless you have a serious penchant for gospel tunes, “God” (from the God, Love, Murder set) should be all one needs to represent Cash’s Billy Graham material.

Bitter Tears (1964), Cash’s loving homage to Native Americans, is the pinnacle of the legend’s long, often tedious, string of concept albums he kicked out during the 1960s and ’70s. Nevertheless, his first such collection, Ride This Train: A Stirring Travelogue Of America In Story And Song, is no slouch and is a fun curiosity piece.

Some will find Cash talking about trains in a manner that smacks of a Disney history lesson and the incessant sound of a locomotive chugging along, annoyingly – others will smile and love it.

Orange Blossom Special (1965) is the premium studio album Cash cut during his long tenure at Columbia and easily ranks as one of the few, truly great country albums of the 1960s – a time when the vast majority of the emphasis in Nashville was being placed on singles.

Beside the fact that he’s covered him three times, the Bob Dylan influence can also be heard in the way Cash snarls the outtake of “Mama You Been On My Mind” and the inclusion of more folk-oriented material such as “Long Black Veil.”

The topical, self-penned, “All of God’s Children Ain’t Free” is a song that no other country artist in the 1960s would have dared to record. Then again, no other country artist was able to appeal to both the silent majority and the hippie audience during one of this country’s most tumultuous decades.

This record (along with Cash’s weekly TV show that debuted later and featured guests such as Joni Mitchell) did nearly as much to bridge the gap between country and rock as The Byrd’s Sweetheart of The Rodeo (1968) or Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969).

Most duet albums featuring husband and wife teams (excluding Richard and Linda Thompson), are mushy, tepid affairs, but Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash and June Carter is as energetic, playful and rollicking as anything Cash has ever recorded.

With Carl Perkins on electric lead, Cash and Carter chug along like a locomotive heading downhill while spitting lines back and forth such as “you big- mouthed woman” and “you a nasty boy.”

Each vintage era Cash album has been digitally remastered, juiced up with bonus tracks and sounds as warm and inviting today as they must have three decades ago. The only real disappointment is that these records were ever allowed to go out of print in the first place.

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