Sharps & Flats

Johnny Cash never killed a man just to watch him die, but he forged a career of love, God and murder.

Published May 18, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In the summer of 1955, Johnny Cash, a gaunt 23-year-old singer from Arkansas, stepped up to the microphone in Sam Phillips' tiny studio on Union Avenue in Memphis and recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," with its irresistible twangy guitar intro and these now-famous (and still shocking) words: "When I was just a baby/My momma told me, 'Son/Always be a good boy/Don't ever play with guns'/But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die." He was so cool and convincing that to this day, there are people who assume Cash was singing about himself.

Unlike Merle Haggard, who served time in San Quentin State Prison for armed robbery, Cash, even in his hard-livin', motel-trashin' younger days, was never more than a small-time offender. According to Nicholas Dawidoff's authoritative "In the Country of Country," Cash was jailed on seven different occasions, each time for just one night. Once, he got thrown in the slammer in El Paso, Texas, after trying to smuggle amphetamines across the border from Mexico. (Cash's early self-destructive habits are legendary and well-documented.)

But Cash is no murderer. Still, he has always identified with those who step outside of the law, and he has probably recorded more murder songs than just about any other singer alive -- and that includes Tupac. Sixteen of them, including "Folsom Prison Blues," can be found on the third CD of "Love God Murder," a three-disc set of songs selected by the Man in Black himself. (Each disc is also available separately.)

With liner notes written by Cash, his wife June Carter Cash, U2's Bono and, oddly enough, director Quentin Tarantino, the collection is surely intended to further cement Cash's reputation as an American musical legend. (As if that's necessary.) Trouble is, Cash's long recording career has nearly as many peaks and valleys as Elvis Presley's. "Love God Murder" contains some of Cash's best (and best-known) songs, but it also includes too many forgettable ones.

"Murder," for instance, kicks off (naturally) with "Folsom Prison," followed by the chilling "Delia's Gone," from his acclaimed 1994 comeback album "American Recordings." The two songs are joined at the hip. Cash, practically bragging about his bloody deed, sings, "First time I shot her/I shot her in the side/Hard to watch her suffer/But with the second shot she died/Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone."

Those songs are hard to follow. By comparison, "Mister Garfield," from 1965, and "When It's Springtime in Alaska," from 1964, are garden-variety murder ballads. Only when Cash sings in the first person -- as he does on "Cocaine Blues," "The Long Black Veil" and Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" -- does he approach the brilliance of "Folsom" and "Delia."

"God," which contains 16 of Cash's sacred songs, holds up better. One standout is "Belshazzar," a revved-up rockabilly number from 1957 that Cash sang when he first auditioned for Phillips at Sun Records. (Cash pitched himself as a gospel singer, but Phillips convinced him to stick to secular material.) After Cash moved to Columbia Records in 1958, his producer, Don Law, allowed him to record "Hymns by Johnny Cash," his second album for the label. "God" features three great songs from that effort: "It Was Jesus (Who Was It?)," "The Old Account" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." Unfortunately, "God" contains a few numbers that never should have been resurrected, particularly "The Greatest Cowboy of All." That would be Jesus, who, according to Cash, "loves all his little dogies/He speaks to them kind and gently/And he'll lift up any maverick who falls." Yee-haw!

"Love" is the standout disc of this collection. (It's the one to buy if you don't want the entire anthology.) To understand why, read Cash's revealing liner notes. "I remember when I fell into June's 'Ring of Fire,'" he writes. "There was a lot of showing it as well as saying it. Never has there been a deeper love than my love for her. At times it was painful, but we shared the pain, so it was just half painful. Now, even though it [has] mellowed out, the flame of our love still burns, and it burns, burns, burns."

The song, of course, is "Ring of Fire," which June Carter wrote in the early 1960s after falling hard for Cash. "I felt like I was falling into a pit of fire and I was literally burning alive," she has said. That's a recipe for great love songs, and "Ring of Fire" is one of them. It's here, of course, along with "I Walk The Line," "All Over Again" and "I Still Miss Someone." But many of the selections are little-known gems, like "A Little at a Time" (1962), in which a heartbroken Cash moans, "Hurt me, a little at a time/Turn me away, a little at a time/Walk away slow like you don't want to go/Leave me, a little at a time." Then there's "Happiness Is You" (1965), a simple ode to the love of his life: "No more chasing moonbeams or catching falling stars," he sings with contentment. "I know now my pot of gold is anywhere you are."

Cash is now 68 and suffering from Shy-Drager Syndrome, a rare degenerative neurological disorder. Naturally, that adds a certain poignancy to "Love God Murder." Is this Cash's swan song? Don't bet on it. Lately, he's been recording a new batch of songs for a third Rick Rubin-produced album, to be released sometime later this year. He may even play a few shows here and there. It's a touching footnote to a blessed career. As Cash muses in the notes, "God likes a Southern accent and He tolerates country music and quite a bit of guitar."

By David Hill

David Hill is a freelance writer in Denver.

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Country Music Johnny Cash Music