Ten Essential Johnny Cash Albums

In the wake of his 70th birthday on Feb. 26, this looks to be the year of Johnny Cash in reissued albums. In addition to its recently released 2-CD package The Essential Johnny Cash, Sony’s Legacy Records will release reissues throughout the year. Five are coming out on March 19:The Fabulous Johnny Cash, Hymns by Johnny Cash, Ride This Train, Orange Blossom Special and Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash and June Carter (often referred to as Jackson). Each has been re-mastered and contains additional bonus tracks. At least five more will come later this year.

Additionally, late last year, Legacy released the long-out-of-print Johnny Cash: America (A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song) and Ragged Old Flag. The German reissue label Bear Family Records has released The Man in Black — The International Johnny Cash, which includes songs he recorded in German and Spanish for European markets. His albums on the American Records label will also be reissued this year.

Also, former Cash band member (and former Cash son-in-law) Marty Stuart is assembling an all-star tribute album, to be released May 28 on Sony Nashville. Artists performing Cash songs on the album include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle , Dwight Yoakam , Emmylou Harris , Mary Chapin Carpenter , Sheryl Crow, Travis Tritt , Keb’ Mo’, and Little Richard.

As an album artist, Cash was one of the first in country music to recognize the value of the long-playing album as a vehicle with potential far beyond its usual function of simply gathering singles together as a sales tool. Along with Willie Nelson , Waylon Jennings and a few others, Cash saw in the album format an opportunity to present conceptual and thematic recordings. He began exploring the possibilities early on, in the 1960 work Ride This Train, 1963’s Blood, Sweat & Tears and 1964’s Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian). Interestingly, Cash and Jennings were the first country artists to begin including Bob Dylan songs as album tracks early on in their careers. Cash was the first artist in country to cover Springsteen songs.

Tower Records now stocks 545 Cash-related CD titles, so there will be no shortage of Cash music for his fans to enjoy. Preparing a list of 10 essential Cash albums is a highly subjective exercise, one open to debate. This one was assembled with an eye to historical overview, musical impact and just plain personal favorites. Reader replies are invited.

Ten Essential Johnny Cash Albums:

1. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Legacy). This was one of the first and remains the greatest live country album. The rapport with the raucous inmate audience fuels Cash throughout this high-intensity live 1968 concert.

2. Johnny Cash: America (A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song) (Legacy). Cash has always been unafraid to celebrate this country and does so unashamedly in this 1972 album. He tells America’s story in dialogue and in such marvelous songs as “Come Take a Trip in My Airship” and “Paul Revere.”

3. Ragged Old Flag (Legacy). Released in 1974, this was his first album of all original material. The title song remains a gem. Unlike many artists, Cash knows how to be patriotic without being jingoistic or maudlin.

4. The Fabulous Johnny Cash. (Legacy). Cash’s 1959 debut for Columbia still stands up surprisingly well. Songs such as “Frankie’s Man, Johnny,” “I Still Miss Someone” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” will never go out of fashion. There are six bonus songs on the reissue.

5. American Recordings (American). After Nashville and Columbia Records wrote him off, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings gave him a studio and an open microphone and let Cash record what he wanted. This 1994 album was the brilliant result. Sparse and stripped down, it pulls together such seemingly incompatible elements as a murder ballad, a song of redemption, and compositions by writers as far-ranging as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Glenn Danzig, Loudon Wainwright III and Nick Lowe (Cash’s former son-in-law).

6. Hymns by Johnny Cash (Legacy) was a prime reason he left Sun Records in Memphis for Columbia Records in Nashville, Cash has said. He wanted to record an album of hymns; Sun records founder Sam Phillips disagreed. This was his second Columbia album, in 1959. Cash’s deeply spiritual nature may be a revelation to you.

7. Orange Blossom Special (Legacy). Recorded in 1965. It’s here because of these songs: “Orange Blossom Special,” “The Long Black Veil” and many others, including three Dylan songs and a Harlan Howard composition.

8. Love God Murder (Legacy). For this dark, brooding trilogy released in 2000, Cash curated his songs thematically into these three categories. There’s some real meat on these bones. The package includes liner notes by Cash, as well as essays on the themes by June Carter Cash (Love), Bono (God)and Quentin Tarantino (Murder).

9. The Essential Johnny Cash (Legacy). Ordinarily I’m reluctant to include collections in best-of album lists, but this one is just so good that it begs to be here. If, for some unfathomable reason, you can have only one Johnny Cash album, this is the one to have.

10. Unchained (American). Cash covers songs by artists as disparate as Dean Martin, Beck and Soundgarden and makes them his own. He proved in this 1996 release that he will always be a relevant artist.