Johnny Cash, The Complete Sun Singles, Vol. 1

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
We can’t do without these essentials from one of America’s greatest artists.

Like several other (but not all) key Sun artists, Johnny Cash came to the label with his signature sound already intact. Over that boom-chicka beat created by bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins, Johnny's stark baritone carried the songs; even when he soloed, Perkins 'rudimentary boogie lines did little more than restate the rhythm. It was minimalist music that couldn't have been simpler, and once heard it was impossible to get out of one's mind. Johnny's extraordinary voice was the key, but it didn't hurt that he had such evocative material, from the giddy Southern pride of "Hey, Porter!" to the doominess of "Folsom Prison Blues," from the eloquent hillbilly poetry of "Big River" to the unwavering devotion of "I Walk the Line." With its weird-sounding chords and ever-shifting keys, that song's extension of the Cash sound resonated like nothing before or since. Even as his material became more conspicuously targeted for the teen market, Cash remained his own man; "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" may have been lightweight by his standards, but "Guess Things Happen That Way" has a fatalism and finality that are unnerving. Cash's earliest Sun singles were country music for people with raw nerve endings, very much in the emotional vein of the Carter Family's fabled line, "It takes a worried man/ To sing a worried song."