To commemorate the 70th birthday of John R. Cash, Columbia/Legacy has scheduled a year of important reissues, beginning with The Essential Johnny Cash.

To commemorate the 70th birthday of John R. Cash, Columbia/Legacy has scheduled a year of important reissues, beginning with The Essential Johnny Cash. This 36-song, two-disc set is the first release to chronicle recordings from Cash's tenures at the Sun, Columbia, and Mercury labels over four decades, beginning with the exuberant "Hey Porter" from 1956 and ending with Cash's stoic vocal on U2's "The Wanderer" from the latter's Zooropa in 1993. It's a glorious journey, starting on disc one with the slap-and-thud Sun days featuring the incredible Luther Perkins and including such landmark performances as "I Walk the Line," "Big River," the inventive "Ring of Fire," the barely contained pathos of "Cry, Cry, Cry," and the building urgency of "Five Feet High and Rising." Ever the social observer, Cash was ahead of his time on such songs as "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." Disc two begins with a shuffling, authoritative take on Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" and the rousing "Jackson" (both with June Carter Cash), but the set is a little light on coverage of Cash's live prison performances, including only "Boy Named Sue" and "Folsom Prison Blues." The latter, with its "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" line and Perkins' searing guitar work, evokes a level of bad-dog meanness that a long line of gangsta posers who have followed can only dream about. Never hokey, and honest and sincere to a fault, Cash is hence able to pull off songs like "Daddy Sang Bass," "Man in Black," and "Ragged Old Flag" that would fall short in a lesser man's hands. "Girl From the North Country," with its intriguing Dylan vocal and brilliant Cash performance, is perfect in its simplicity, and the spare acoustics of "If I Were a Carpenter" (again with wife June) remain moving. Cash sings Kris Kristofferson's pitiful "Sunday Morning Coming Down" like he has been there and "Flesh and Blood" like he means it. "The Highwayman," with Cash's Highwaymen compatriots Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, is bold and adventurous, and "The Wanderer" with U2 is sonically interesting. While Cash has created a musical legacy uniquely his own, he has, over time, evolved into something bigger. Rebel poet, fierce patriot, faulted human being, child of God, Cash speaks to and from us all, to everything we've ever been and everything we ever could be.—RW