Cash Dividend

Something like a smile curls his lips, and his gaze, in its focus, borders on the ferocious. He has mad eyes, in fact, and that’s apt, really, because he is mad, mad about music, a circumstance that becomes apparent when he steps to the microphone and starts to sing: “Now I taught the weepin’ willow how to cry—”


In the twilight, a stark tableau unfolds. Pomaded and black-clad, a lean young man turns on the camera, strumming an acoustic guitar clamped to his chest. In silhouette behind him stand other musicians, a tree, and farm equipment of some sort—a fingerwheel, perhaps. They don’t matter. The man with the guitar commands attention. Something like a smile curls his lips, and his gaze, in its focus, borders on the ferocious. He has mad eyes, in fact, and that’s apt, really, because he is mad, mad about music, a circumstance that becomes apparent when he steps to the microphone and starts to sing: “Now I taught the weepin’ willow how to cry—”

The preceding footage, in glorious black-and-white, unreels five minutes into Johnny Cash: The Anthology and showcases its subject, near the start of his career, performing “Big River,” one of the Sun Records hits he crafted in 1957. That production aired on the local PBS affiliate, KETC/Channel 9, in August 2001, and it warrants mention here and now, more than a year later, for three main reasons. First, to the best of my knowledge, KETC never rebroadcast it, suggesting that Johnny Cash: The Anthology enjoyed only a limited viewership in St. Louis. Second, although at first available only as a PBS pledge premium at the $150 level, it hit the open market in January for considerably less, as a harbinger of the ongoing celebration of Cash’s seventieth birthday, which has included a bounty of reissues, at least two tribute CDs, and, most recently, his fourth collaboration with Rick Rubin, The Man Comes Around. Third, the Sports Desk’s considerable and sophisticated tech holdings (Macintosh SE, IBM Selectric III, RCA boom box, 13-inch Sansui TV) were recently augmented by a DVD player, so I can now alert readers to something worthwhile they perhaps initially missed (while innocently deducting the purchase of the device as a business-related expense on my federal income taxes).

Thence, to echo my new toy: LOADING.

Those who missed the KETC broadcast of Johnny Cash: The Anthology missed a marvel, roughly an hour of and on the legendary Man in Black. Not so much a documentary as a tribute, it features Cash performing 14 songs from his vast oeuvre, in clips spanning nearly four decades. The earliest come from a local L.A. program titled Star Route U.S.A. circa 1961, according to Al Greenfield, who produced and directed the tribute for Hallway Entertainment; the latest, from a mid-’90s TNN broadcast.

Amid the performances appear excerpts from interviews with various country commentators, including Merle Haggard, the late Waylon Jennings, and George Jones, as well as Glen Campbell. Other interviewees range from younger performers Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart (who were at one time sons-in-law of Cash) through jack-of-all-trades Merle Kilgore (who wrote “Ring of Fire” with June Carter) to producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement (who helmed the Sun mixing board during Cash’s years there). Yet other interviewees, for one reason or another, inspire surprise, even shock: Missouri-born Porter Wagoner (still looking like a preacher and dressing like a pimp, here in a kelly green chemise and Nudie-style suit coat) and Jessi Colter (whose solo work has all but vanished).

Common to their commentary is a respect verging on reverence. “John, in any generation, could’ve been a star,” states Jennings at the start of the production. Directly, Campbell adds, “Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were the most two (sic) charismatic people I’ve ever seen onstage—I’ve never seen anybody come close.” Even the reserved Wagoner testifies: “I can’t think of any person that probably did more for country music and country sounds than Johnny Cash did.”

Not all of the commentary, of course, comprises such testimonials. Clement generally concentrates on technical aspects of recording Cash, for example, and Crowell and Stuart focus on formal considerations in an almost literary way.

Rest assured, though, that solemnity doesn’t go unchallenged on Johnny Cash: The Anthology, which, after all, celebrates the work of the man behind romps like “After the Ball” from 1976. Halfway through the production, for instance, Campbell relates a comic anecdote about the guitar style of longtime Cash sideman Luther Perkins, who died in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Haggard growls, “Johnny Cash was out of line all of his life.” Then, with a snort: “‘I Walk the Line’ is sort of ludicrous for him to sing. ‘I walk the line’—he never walked any line.”

The performances themselves recall a passage from Cash, his 1997 autobiography with Patrick Carr:

[C]ountry life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being “country,” they don’t mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They’re talking more about choices—a way to look, a group to belong to…

The phrase “the land and the life it sustains and regulates” bears particular notice: at their best, the production’s performances in specific and Cash’s songs in general portray a man with his eyes on the heavens but his feet on the ground. Collectively, his work seethes with all the promise and peril of a fistful of loam from his family’s fertile but flood-prone farm in Dyess, the northeast Arkansas resettlement colony where Cash, as early as the age of eight, passed his days stuffing a six-foot-long canvas sack with Delta Pine cotton. It has underpinnings perhaps irreproducible today. In the flash and dazzle of contemporary commercial country, for example, one can only wonder how many (if any) performers could authenticate something like “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station” from 1967.

That poignant, lesser-known ode, sad to say, doesn’t grace Johnny Cash: The Anthology, but devotees needn’t complain—the production otherwise abounds with delights. Three subjective highlights: Cash, inevitably, duets on “Jackson”—one of the greatest love songs of the last century—with June Carter, her grin incandescent, her eyes afire, her voice as jubilant as the first day of spring. A third of the way into the production, it also airs vintage 1968 footage of Cash, in close-up, doing “Orange Blossom Special”; shining with sweat, waging a harmonica duel with himself or the devil or both, the man pours everything he’s got into the E.T. Rouse classic. Finally, toward the end, Cash performs “Bird on a Wire,” a heartfelt, minimalist offering from 1994’s American Recordings, which should serve as a reminder—if such be needed—that he retains his artistic vitality despite the passage of time. (He does so, in fact, despite the ravages of autonomic neuropathy, the vicious disorder which has plagued him since late 1997 and which was misdiagnosed for the longest time as Shy-Drager syndrome. More specifically, American III: Solitary Man, Cash’s 2000 release, was nominated for “Best Contemporary Folk Album” in last year’s Grammy competition—it lost to Emmylou Harris’s Red Dirt Girl—and the title track won in the “Best Male Country Vocal Performance” category.)

To be sure, not everything on Johnny Cash: The Anthology rises to the heights of the three performances cited a paragraph back. On “If I Were a Carpenter,” for instance, Cash’s duet with his wife feels forced; moreover, on “Man in Black” (from The Johnny Cash Show, which ABC broadcast from 1969 to 1971), he seems distant, and on “A Boy Named Sue,” even by the bombastic standards of that song, he overemotes.

Such quibbles aside, the production hits the high notes. Beyond the works already mentioned, Cash is joined by Jennings on a Farm Aid rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the Statler Brothers complement his unmistakable baritone on “Daddy Sang Bass,” Carl Perkins’ heartbreaking latter-day spiritual. Also included: “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire” (with its soaring horns), and Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” perhaps the cheeriest song ever written about sheer and utter despair.

Regarding “Big River”—which also closes Johnny Cash: The Anthology in a rowdy, rousing reprise—Stuart drawls, “Cash was wired and on fire.” That comment could apply to the production in general.

It should thus delight Cash fans who were having supper or viewing the news when KETC aired the production at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, and even those who viewed that broadcast may well covet the commercial release. That release, you see, includes a bonus documentary, Half Mile a Day, which more than doubles the length of the thing. (The DVD’s running time totals 143 minutes.)

Like the title production, the bonus documentary includes brief testimonials from a number of performers and others: Judy Collins and Levon Helm, Willie Nelson and Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips (looking suspiciously Dorian Grayish). Although, admittedly, some clips are repeated from Johnny Cash: The Anthology to Half Mile a Day, the latter more than compensates by presenting astonishing footage and stills as background to “Five Feet High and Rising” and sketching why Cash seems so distant on the title production’s performance of “Man in Black.” It also presents Crowell and Clement neatly deconstructing the technique of “I Walk the Line,” Kilgore recounting the first meeting of Cash and Bob Dylan, Hag meditating on the landmark San Quentin concert, and Kristofferson revisiting “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” As a bonus, in short, the documentary bops.

But enough. Many paragraphs back, I submitted that Johnny Cash: The Anthology warrants mention here and now for three main reasons. On reflection, though, I’ve realized a fourth reason exists for relatives and friends of Cash fans: Christmas is coming.

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