Johnny Cash collection defines genre

May 23, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Usually, when it gets to be boxed-set time for an artist, the idea is to assemble a selection of songs that sums up just what made this person a star. It's a statement of identity, a portrait in sound.

But what Johnny Cash ended up with, after compiling the tunes for the three-CD set "Love, God, Murder" (ColumbiaAmericanLegacy 63809, arriving in stores today), wasn't the definitive statement on his own career, but a summation of country music itself.

In this collection, Cash -- who chose every song personally -- reduces his career to three themes.

First, there's "Love," which means everything from the fierce ardor of "I Walk the Line" to the hopeless passion of "Ring of Fire." Then there's "God," reflecting his love of sacred and devotional music. Finally, the "Murder" disc digs into the bloody, dark side of country music through the likes of "Hardin Wouldn't Run," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and "Folsom Prison Blues."

It's not the face of country music industry boosters would like you to see, but it's far more affecting and true-to-life than anything on the charts today. For one thing, the songs on "Love, God, Murder" spring from the most basic of human feelings -- faith and fear, desire and devotion, sorrow and surrender. No one disc has a monopoly on any of these emotions, and it's easy to see parallels between, say, the love beyond reason expressed in "I Walk the Line" (from the "Love" disc) and that of "The Long Black Veil" (from "Murder").

The Cash collection also understands how deeply country music is tied into the history and traditions of our nation. The music here draws on everything from rockabilly and Western swing to blues and Appalachian balladry. And the songs span more than a century.

Some, like "Mister Garfield," are directly tied to historical events (in this case, the assassination of President James Garfield). Others, such as "The Great Speckled Bird," are part of a musical tradition that dates back a dozen or more decades. This is as close to absolute bedrock as American popular music can get.

What ultimately brings this music to life, though, are the performances. Although there's an enormous amount of character and tone in Cash's deep, resonant voice, what comes through most clearly in these performances is his strength as a story-teller. It hardly matters whether the tale he tells is that of Saul on the road to Damascus, or a drug-addled killer -- Cash is convincing every time out, and that is what makes him one of our greatest musical treasures.

Johnny Cash

Love, God, Murder ColumbiaAmericanLegacy 63809

Sun score:****

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