LOVE, GOD, MURDER

DARRYL STERDAN

, Last Updated: 1:42 PM ET


LOVE, GOD, MURDER
Johnny Cash
(Columbia / Sony)

Bridegrooms wear black. So do preachers, judges and executioners.

And, of course, so does Johnny Cash -- the Man in Black hisself. That sartorial synchronicity should come as no surprise, mind. Not when you recall the country music legend has spent decades singing about subjects he and those dark-dudded dudes understand intimately -- romance, obsession, religion, temptation, betrayal, crime, punishment and death. Or to boil it down to the pithy three-word title of his new box set: Love, God, Murder.

If it seems like short shrift to sum up Cash with three little words, well, put your mind at ease. Johnny doesn't mind a bit. In fact, if you believe the press bumpf, it was Cash himself who came up with this ultra-cool concept: A three-disc retrospective with one CD devoted to each of the themes that have dominated his art. He supervised the production and remastering and even penned brief liner notes for the discs (which are all available separately).

More importantly, he also selected the songs, combing hundreds of tunes from his earliest Sun sessions to '90s Viper Room gigs to select the 48 tracks (roughly one for every year he's been in show biz) that make up these three CDs. That input is what sets Love, God, Murder apart from yer typical greatest-hits set compiled by record-company weasels. Not that you won't find hits here; there's plenty of 'em -- from Ring of Fire and Folsom Prison Blues to Delia's Gone, many of Cash's classics are present and accounted for. Along with 'em, though (and instead of overplayed chestnuts like A Boy Named Sue or Tennessee Flat-Top Box), you get a healthy serving of more obscure tracks; old b-sides, long-forgotten album cuts and oddball ditties that topped Johnny's personal hit parade even if them never charted in Billboard. Of course, he sings 'em all like they were destined to be, with those coal-mine deep pipes and that world-weary delivery of his.

Which of the three is best? Well, that's kinda like asking whether you prefer air, food or water. Love has I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, a tender take on Bob Wills' My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You, two top-drawer unreleased tracks -- the doo-woppy My Old Faded Rose and the brooding weeper I Tremble For You -- along with a sweetly touching essay by wife June Carter about how she became hypnotized by Johnny's "black eyes that shone like agates."

God skips bigger faves like Peace in the Valley for mostly lesser-known fare (at least to heathens like us) such as My God is Real and It Was Jesus. However, Kris Kristofferson's Why Me Lord and Johnny's own Great Speckled Bird will probably ring a few church bells with even the biggest sinners -- and spirited numbers like The Greatest Cowboy of Them All and Man in White keep the disc from getting overly reverent (as does a typically bombastic essay from Bono).

But if Johnny had an angel on one shoulder, he always had a devil on the other. It was that struggle with his own personal demons -- notably decades-long addictions to various evil goodies -- that made so much of his music so compelling. And it's what makes Murder (with liner notes by Quentin Tarantino) the standout of this bunch. If Folsom Prison Blues and Long Black Veil don't do it for you, well, there's always the incredible chain-gang boogie of Goin' to Memphis, his haunting cover of Springsteen's Highway Patrolman, or the rollicking Cocaine Blues, a tale of drugs, betrayal and murder recorded during his famous '60s gig at Folsom (which is cooler than anything so-called bad boys like Led Zep or Guns N' Roses ever did).

Now that Cash's health is in decline -- he suffers from the degenerative neurological disorder Shy-Drager Syndrome -- he may be thinking about how he wants to be remembered. With these three discs, folks can take their pick: devoted husband, God-fearing penitent or prototypical rock 'n' roll rebel. Either way, there's no doubt of his true legacy: Great American Artist.

Track Listing Disc: 1
  1. I Walk The Line - (mono)
  2. Oh, What A Dream
  3. All Over Again
  4. Little At A Time, A
  5. My Old Faded Rose
  6. Happiness Is You
  7. Flesh And Blood
  8. I Tremble For You
  9. I Feel Better All Over
  10. 'Cause I Love You
  11. Ballad Of Barbara
  12. Ring Of Fire
  13. My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You
  14. While I've Got It On My Mind
  15. I Still Miss Someone
  16. One Rose, The (That's Left In My Heart) -

  Disc: 2
  1. What On Earth Will You Do (For Heaven's Sake)
  2. My God Is Real
  3. It Was Jesus (Who Was It?)
  4. Why Me, Lord - (mono)
  5. Greatest Cowboy Of Them All, The
  6. Redemption - (mono)
  7. Great Speckled Bird, The
  8. Old Account, The
  9. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
  10. When He Comes
  11. Kneeling Drunkard's Plea, The
  12. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)
  13. Man In White
  14. Belshazzar - (mono)
  15. Oh, Bury Me Not On (Introduction: A Cowboy's Prayer) - (mono)
  16. Oh Come, Angel Band

  Disc: 3
  1. Folsom Prison Blues - (mono)
  2. Delia's Gone - (mono)
  3. Mister Garfield
  4. Orleans Parish Prison - (live)
  5. When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below)
  6. Sound Of Laughter, The
  7. Cocaine Blues - (live)
  8. Hardin Wouldn't Run - (mono)
  9. Long Black Veil, The
  10. Austin Prison
  11. Joe Bean
  12. Going To Memphis
  13. Don't Take Your Guns To Town
  14. Highway Patrolman
  15. Jacob Green
  16. Wall, The
 


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