Our Man Johnny

Faith in the Lord. True love. Murderous violence. The Bible draws on these three themes. So does good country music. Think David, Bathsheba, and Uriah on compact disc.

Johnny Cash can sing on all three subjects with equal certitude. Here's a man with a voice that can soar to the heavens because it has spent time in wasted places. On his three-CD boxed set, Love, God, Murder, Cash mines the dominant themes that have produced more than 40 years of great music. All of these songs were handpicked by Cash, the result being anything but another "best of" collection. Liner note commentaries are provided by June Carter Cash (Love), Bono (God), and Quentin Tarantino (Murder), and by Cash himself on each album. Cash produced these albums as well, along with Steve Berkowitz and Al Quaglieri, the result being wonderfully stripped-down versions of previously over-produced works and a new coat of crystal on rusty tracks from the '50s and '60s.

From his first recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis, Johnny Cash has sung the song of a lover. Find the stage of your relationship and he's got a tune for it: pining for love lost ("I Still Miss Someone"), an explosive attraction that can't be denied ("Ring of Fire"), the struggle to remain faithful ("I Walk the Line"). But it is not these classics, the Johnny Cash standards that we expect, that make Love memorable. From the icicle heartbreak of the previously unreleased "I Tremble For You" to fantastic old B-sides like "All Over Again" and "A Little at a Time," this album makes accessible to everyone songs that only the most hardcore Cash fans would know. And these songs come with verifiable proof. "Never has there been a deeper love than my love for [June]," Cash says of their 32-year marriage.

Cash knew how to sing gospel way before God. It's how he and his family spent long days in the cotton fields of northeastern Arkansas. With recordings from 1957 to 1994, the songs on God evolve and yet remain grounded in the gospel. A joyful 1958 recording of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" features doo-wop infused backup singers on the alleluias. In another 1950s selection, Daniel gives "Belshazzar" the bad news from the writing on the wall: "My friend, you're weighed in the balance and found wanting." These aren't syrupy songs of praise. The layered harmonies from the Carter Family provide a salve, the only thing softening Cash's piercing question "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)."

In his essay, Bono writes, "Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company." That empathy enables him to sing the most recent songs with an unblinking scrutiny that Cash casts on no one more than himself. With just a gently strumming guitar and that recognizable baritone of his, he turns Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord" into a living room confessional: "So help me Jesus, I know what I am." Cash sings as one who knows what it means to be redeemed, with the heart of someone sure of his convictions.

And just as often, with the song of a convict. Everyone knows that Johnny Cash "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Of course, Cash didn't, but that doesn't really matter. On Murder, he reminds his listeners, "These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it." And therein lies the therapy. We can be transported into a world of cold decisions and harsh consequences, yet come out on the other side not only unscathed (and unimprisoned) but somehow better for the experience.

THE AMAZING THING about Johnny's world of robbers, killers, and convicts is the unescapable morality, judgment, and, most of all, regret that is contained in nearly every song—even if sometimes it feels like an afterthought, as at the end of the unrepentant girlfriend-killing song "Cocaine Blues," with the admonition to "lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be" (met with a roar from the Folsom Prison audience, where the song was recorded). Cash can turn Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" into a lament for a lost brother, a murderer that the narrator lets escape into Canada because he knows that sometimes you make a choice for "blood on blood" to outweigh justice.

Johnny Cash can take his listeners along on some dark rides, just as he can tenderly profess his love and worship his God with powerful lungs. That he can do all three within one boxed set, with all the messiness of contradiction but not a trace of hypocrisy, makes these songs sanctified.

Kimberly Burge is a writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C. Her brother Kvn Burge is a writer and student living in Olympia, Washington. They reluctantly admit that their parents may have been right about country music after all.

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"Our Man Johnny"
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