"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Simple and to the point, that statement has introduced thousands of Johnny Cash concerts, including "Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden," a recently discovered performance from 1969 that's just been released as part of the Man in Black's 70th-birthday celebration. The party was in February; the celebration has continued unabated and includes two tribute albums and a new offering from the master himself.
Madison Square Garden was a major breakthrough for Cash, as was 1969. Early in the year, the man Life called "The Rough-Cut King of Country Music" won a Grammy for "Folsom Prison Blues" and played another prison for a sequel, "Johnny Cash at San Quentin." He recorded with and wrote liner notes for Bob Dylan on "Nashville Skyline." "The Johnny Cash Show" premiered on ABC in June, with Dylan his first guest. The novelty hit "A Boy Named Sue" topped the charts, and Cash also became the first country artist to sell out the Garden.
Cash is one of the great explorers of the American psyche. His songs -- and there have been hundreds in a career spanning almost half a century -- have captured the hopes, dreams, frustrations and follies of this nation. Few have better sketched the lives of working men and women in hard-hit times. As Cash explained in one of his songs, he wears black:
For the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
Just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black.
In many ways, Johnny Cash is the godfather of Americana, the bridge between country and folk traditions and modernism. He's one of a handful of artists to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the select company Cash keeps includes Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Elvis Presley.
Pop culture icon? American original?
And at 70, Cash is still taking risks, fighting demons. Those demons are no longer drugs or alcohol but human frailty.
Over the last few years, Cash has battled autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system that makes him susceptible to respiratory problems. He stopped touring regularly in 1997. For his new album, "The Man Comes Around" (Lost Highway), Cash often had to record in short segments, and limitations of breath and range are apparent in that now well-weathered baritone. But his defiant, indomitable spirit remains undiminished.
Since hooking up with producer Rick Rubin in 1994, Cash has favored simple, spare production reminiscent of his classic rockabilly recordings in the mid-'50s; the only thing missing is the rhythmic overdrive of his legendary sidemen, the Tennessee Two. These are more reflective, ruminative works, subtly framed by a core ensemble of keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell (both of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers), guitarist Smokey Hormel and multi-instrumentalist Roger Manning Jr.
On his recent albums, Cash has investigated a decidedly eclectic repertoire, and "The Man Comes Around" fits that mold. He gives surprisingly effective readings of Trent Reznor's bleakly introspective confessional "Hurt" (from Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral") and Sting's morality tale "I Hung My Head." But a cover of the Eagles' "Desperado," featuring Don Henley, drags, and Ewan MacColl's embers-like ballad "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," popularized by Roberta Flack, feels like it will last till the end of time.
The title track is a new Cash original about Judgment Day, delivered with a preacher's somber conviction and fire-and-brimstone bookends. Christian faith has been central to Cash through good and bad times, and here he augments his own testament with a taut reading of Depeche Mode's 1989 hit "Personal Jesus."
Notions of redemption and mortality abound, from the literal resurrection of a dying man's last thoughts on Cash's classic "Give My Love to Rose," to world-weary readings of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and the surprisingly obvious Beatles ode, "In My Life." On the other hand, Cash's rendition of the pop standard "We'll Meet Again" -- Vera Lynn's rallying anthem for Brits in World War II before being appropriated as the nuclear holocaust theme in "Dr. Strangelove" -- is downright sweet.
"The Man Comes Around" also affords Cash an opportunity to dust off a few old favorites -- such as "Sam Hall" and "Streets of Laredo," his own "Tear Stained Letter," the ultra-sentimental "Danny Boy" and Hank Williams's plaintive "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," which he sings with gloom-rocker Nick Cave.
To hear "Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden" is to hear the singer in his prime, his authoritative baritone at its peak. While the disc features the whole Cash show -- Carl Perkins dusts off his "Blue Suede Shoes," the Statler Brothers count "Flowers on the Wall," and Mother Maybelle helps the Carter Family deliver "Wildwood Flower" and "Worried Man Blues" -- most of the 26 tracks are Cash on the barrelhead. And most are surprisingly tight -- between 90 seconds and three minutes long, which leaves room for Cash's affecting anecdotes.
The critic Henry Pleasants once noted that Cash's voice was "midway in the never-never land between speech and song," and hearing him tell stories is as much a pleasure as hearing him sing his way through a classic songbook that includes segments about crime and punishment ("Long Black Veil," "The Wall," "Send a Picture of Mother" and "Folsom Prison Blues"), rural roots ("Five Feet High and Rising," "Pickin' Time"), American history ("Wreck of the Old 97," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Remember the Alamo") and spiritual comfort ("He Turned the Water Into Wine," "Were You There [When They Crucified My Lord]" and "Jesus Was a Carpenter"). And amid the political and social turbulence of the late '60s, Cash bucked the country music establishment with a moving reading of Ed McCurdy's antiwar anthem, "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream." This is a significant addition to the Cash canon, the gem in Columbia Records' Cash bounty: His longtime label has reissued 10 classic Cash albums in digitally remastered form, with bonus cuts and historical essays.
"Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash" (Lucky Dog) is Marty Stuart's effort to honor his former father-in-law by putting him in the company of American populist songwriters like Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Dylan delivers an earnest, typically eccentric reading of "Train of Love," prefacing it with "I used to sing this song before I ever wrote a song." Springsteen's solo acoustic version of "Give My Love to Rose" is starkly ruminative. There's also a luminous reading of "Flesh and Blood" by Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sheryl Crow. Anyone for Trio II?
Those performances come from a 1999 television tribute, but most of the material is newly recorded and much of it is terrific. Highlights include daughter Rosanne Cash's elegantly melancholy "I Still Miss Someone," Dwight Yoakam's virile "Understand Your Man," Charlie Robison's cautionary "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and Steve Earle's "Hardin Wouldn't Run," which traverses familiar outlaw territory. Less impressive are Little Richard's rigid "Get Rhythm," Travis Tritt's mundane copy of "I Walk the Line" and Hank Williams Jr.'s southern-rock rafting down "Big River." Strangest of all: Keb' Mo's kinda cool Delta bluesing of "Folsom Prison Blues," undermined by a politically correct lyric revision that turns an unrepentant confession to a complaint: "They say I shot a man down in Reno, but that was just a lie." Please!
The album concludes with "Meet Me in Heaven," the first recorded duet by cousins Janette and June Carter Cash. With Janette's raw, weathered vocals underscored by June's soft harmonies and Johnny's occasional bass vocals, the song makes up in historic resonance what it lacks in smoothness.
"Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash" (Dualtone) features a more alt-country lineup and focuses more on Cash's boom-chicka rockabilly rhythms and early song catalogue. That's not surprising: Co-producer Chuck Mead is the leader of country roots-revivalists BR549 and with bassist David Roe and drummer Ken Coomer forms the band on this album, creating continuity verging on sameness. When it works, it's terrific, as on Robbie Fulks's roughneck "Cry, Cry, Cry," Eddie Angel's "Straight A's in Love," Damon Bramblett's trebly "I'm Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick on My Old Guitar" and an incendiary "Ring of Fire" by Billy Burnette.
Also strong are Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis's charming duet on "Pack Up Your Sorrows" and Raul Malo's smooth, soulful, Orbison-like crooning on the fabulously fatalistic "I Guess Things Happen That Way." Cash's pianist, Earl Poole Ball, swings through "I Still Miss Someone." Last year, Cash sang on a Grammy-winning Hank Williams tribute "Timeless." This time around, Hank Williams III, who sounds so much more like Hank than Hank Jr., recounts the "Wreck of the Old 97."