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Johnny Cash – Artist’s Choice

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I am very sad for the Carter and Cash families as more terrible news has struck them.

But the Cash recorded bonanza continues. I just received a copy of Artist’s Choice: Johnny Cash, Music That Matters to Him, which obviously was put together prior to his recent death.

And a fascinating collection it is, reflecting The Man in Black’s eclectic neo-traditional taste, and accompanied by his rationale for picking each song as well. Hank Williams’ 1949 classic “Lovesick Blues” held a special place in Johnny’s heart: after banging heads with a voice teacher for a time, she finally asked him to sing something he liked. He sang this song and the teacher told him to never take another lesson, “And so that was the beginning of my professional career, I guess. Singing it like I want to, you know?,” Cash wrote in the liner notes.

Eddy Arnold (managed by Col. Tom Parker, of Elvis fame), the great country crooner, dominated the country charts in the ’40s when Cash was growing up, and he claims to have known and loved them all with the smash crossover hit “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (‘Til I Can Hold You In My Arms)” being his fave. It is a great, sweet song.

Johnny Horton had his biggest hit with “The Battle of New Orleans,” but Cash chose the theme song to a John Wayne movie “North to Alaska” as his favorite by the popular ’50s honky tonker, who actually spent time in Alaska as a fisherman before becoming a star.

Johnny called Marty Robbins his favorite country singer, although I think of Robbins as more of a Western singer, spinning cowboy tales with his smooth, precise tenor. ’59’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was Robbins’ apotheosis, and Cash picked “Big Iron” as its representative.

Kris Kristofferson was one of Johnny’s best friends, and though best known these days as an actor, Kristofferson was a brilliant songwriter and, um, “expressive” singer. Cash did Kris the honor of picking two of his songs for inclusion, “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).” Though Joplin’s “Bobby’ is definitive, Kristofferson’s is surprisingly touching and effective in a spare folkish style reminiscent of John Prine or Roger Miller. “Loving Her” is an equally fine song, but the orchestral arrangement freights Kristofferson’s voice with more than it can handle.

Cash branches out with Roberta Flack’s beautiful, crystalline, reverential R&B ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Mahalia Jackson’s gospel gem “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” and the country gospel of Red Foley’s standard “Peace In the Valley.”

Cash turns in earnest to folk with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” from his stark folk statement Nebraska, and the Chad Mitchell Trio’s “Four Strong Winds.” The Dylan choice is impeccable, and while I understand the appeal of Springsteen as a Woody-type folkslinger, I much prefer him as a rocker and hear ANYTHING he has done without the E Street Band as a step in the wrong direction. But that’s just me.

“Four Strong Winds” is one of my favorite songs of all time, but it is amazing how the subtle differences between the earnest trio-folk of the Mitchells and Neil Young’s more rhythmic, spare, eccentric version with Nicolette Larson on harmony is the difference between the pleasant and the sublime. Though the Mitchells do a credible version of Ian Tyson’s song about a Canadian roustabout’s expression of bittersweet separation and eternal hope, Young turns it into one of the most heartbreaking, wondrous performances on record, as sweeping as the Canadian plains, as timeless as the open sky, and as real as the front door. Maybe Johnny never heard Neil’s version.

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