Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Legend

You could say I grew up in a household that had an affinity for Johnny Cash. The musical trinity of worship for my parents was Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Johnny. There wasn't much good music that came after these gentlemen although my father did like Bob Dylan, Charlie Rich, and Merle Haggard. I didn't learn about The Beatles until the mid-Seventies, and once I heard them I knew where they were coming from. Fifties rock and roll and country were what I was raised on and for good reason.

My mother was born in North Mississippi and then moved to Memphis, the same trajectory one Elvis Presley took. My mother didn't sing so she ended up as a waitress at a barbecue joint where she ending up serving food to the pantheon of rockabilly heroes: Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash. It was a long way away from the sharecropping she had done as a child having to tote around 9 pound cotton sacks. Elvis was the one whose music she was mad for, but she liked them all and I can sometimes cajole her into telling stories about those days when Sun Records and Memphis was the epicenter of a nationwide youth explosion.

My father was the country music side of the family. Hank Williams was his idol along with Johnny Cash even if he did admit once that the single best live performance he'd ever seen was by Charlie Rich playing some bar in Memphis long before he'd become famous. These men were not just entertainers to my parents, but fellow country folk who had made the big time. They understood what the common dirt farmer endured because they were of the land themselves. I was never given the option to like or dislike their music. It was always in the air at my house - listening and breathing were one and the same. So I loved it all indiscriminately the same as I loved life and still do.

I was captivated by Elvis Presley the most, but when it came to country music Johnny Cash was its king. Hank Williams was long gone, but Johnny was all over the television when I was a kid singing songs with June Carter plus I knew Johnny lived just about an hour away. He was larger than life with his black suits and deep booming voice yet still down to earth. He possessed gravity while still being humorous. He was an iconoclast yet filled with a deep respect for the past. Those contradictory elements in the man combined to produce one of the greatest song catalogs of the 20th Century. The new Legend set is one of the best overviews of Cash's recorded career available containing some of his best music recorded for Sun, Columbia, and Mercury omitting only his last material recorded for American.

Minus that one tiny quibble, there is plenty to please over the course of Legend's 4 discs. You get the big hits, the folk songs, gospel hymns, and collaborations along with a handful of never before released cuts. It's all stellar timeless material and well chosen. A compilation of material can never please everybody, but I can't see too many Cash fans not liking what's included. Cash may have had his bouts with drug addiction, but his music is remarkably consistent. Legend shows why he will always will be one.

Which was another reason for his enshrinement by my parents. People are often amazed when they learn how many houses and trailers I lived in during my childhood. There was always uncertainty menacing in the corner. Times were't horrible, but they could sometimes be tough. My father was often changing jobs and I know my parents struggled just to feed me at times. Our moves usually coincided with a change in job or cheaper rent. It was a bit of a drag, but we were in it together. Johnny Cash and others helped us along. We took solace and joy in the music. We might not have been able to count on much; the car would break down, there would be job layoffs, inflation was rampant, gas prices were going through the roof but we could count on Johnny Cash delivering the musical goods.

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