The Essentials – Johnny Cash

This week I wanna take it back not only to 2005, when The Essentials was released – but to anywhere from the year he started in 1955 until the year he died in 2003. Johnny Cash is legendary, as well as one of my grandparents’ many favorite musicians. Unfortunately for my family, but fortunately for my grandpa…my grandma passed a few days ago at the age of 84.

Originally, she’s from Whales in the UK, so naturally, she adored the Beatles. She even saw one of their first shows in America shortly after moving here from London with my grandpa. Since I’m mentally replaying memories of them, always looking for “new music” (new to me), and some of my favorite memories of them involve Johnny Cash in some way, I decided to not even rate, but just talk about how great one of their favorite musicians was. So what better way to remember their legacy, get myself into Johnny Cash, and celebrate their lives other than The Essentials?

Given this album is 34 songs, for simplicity and lengths sake I’m only gonna focus on what I believe would have been/what I know were their favorite songs or any songs that churn up memories of them dancing and singing around the living room…  

The Instrumentals:

I really hope by this point we all at least know who Johnny Cash is. Based off that I wanna start by saying even though his music ranges across decades, his sound is always constant. That forever classic, oh-so-beautiful, Dixieland meets bluegrass meets early rock n’ roll sound. Not only is it a unique sound today, but it’s also a sound that gets inside your head and just takes you back. Almost every instrumental consists of a simple array of Johnny on guitar, a rhythm guitar backing him up, a simple percussion line, maybe some horns…that’s about it. Most of his guitar parts are played in what is often referred to “boom-chuck” rhythm, so essentially within one single measure of music, the rhythm guitarist is playing the actual melody to the song while Johnny plucks along variations of every second note, creating that famous country/bluegrass sound. His percussion is always something simple, which makes a lot of sense given in early Dixieland, jazz, and country-bluegrass the drums are more of a metronome than a part of the song as a whole. All these simple bits combine into a sweet simplistic little symphony that just nestles so perfectly into your ears. It’s really hard not to bob along with Johnny’s instrumentals, and they’re a great escape from the (more often than not) cluster fuck of sounds we’re given today. It reminds me that music, no matter how simple, can still be catchy and (as we see here) historic.

The Vocals:

This is where I start to get too sentimental to keep my thoughts organized so bare with me. Johnny’s vocals have always been something else. Johnny’s topics of vocals range from women he’s lost to escaping “the ring of fire” to his stints in prison, so more often than not there’s a somewhat cheerful yet sorrowful vibe. The things this man can do with his voice are unbelievable though…Johnny will take it from the lowest bass note imaginable, up to a crazy high harmony to begin the next line. On paper, it sounds ridiculously un-impressive but audibly it’s seriously something else. You can hear the story of Johnny Cash in all of his music. His influences, where he’s been and what he’s done. He has a way of making music that transforms his music into more of a rhythmic storytelling poem than a song. Some song’s he’s straight up talking and it still registers as a fantastic song in your mind.

The reason the vocals are sentimental is that, for starters, I can distinctly hear my grandparents singing along to certain songs when they come on. The biggest reason, however, is that as I grew up I noticed that my grandma, and my grandpa too, had adopted this “Cash Style” of singing into their own lives. They were never serious singers (she was a bank teller for a while, and he was a freelance comic for some of the major NY and UK based papers), but regardless every time I heard either of them sing – whether it was Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Elvis, Welsh/Irish songs or even Hymns in Church, they always had that long, strung out, opera-esque Johnny Cash singing style in their voices. They would ALWAYS change vocal parts of any song into a Cash song, hitting all the highs and lows and keeping that vibe alive, and it always worked. They really had such special and influential singing voices. I’ll never forget their singing style.  

The Vibes:

Well, I’m ridiculously biased this week so I wanted to try and sum up the vibes more as reasons to listen to this album, instead of what I usually do – which is sum up the album as a cohesive piece.

On The Essentials, like I mentioned earlier there are 34 songs. It’s a lot to sit down and listen to the entire thing, so here are my recommendations of where to start.

  1. “I Walk the Line”**
  2. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”
  3. “Tennessee Flat Top Box”
  4. “Ring of Fire”**
  5. “Jackson” (ft. June Carter)
  6. “Folsom Prison Blues”**
  7. “Daddy Sang Bass”**
  8. “Girl From North Country” (ft. Bob Dylan)
  9. “Boy Named Sue”**
  10. “Man In Black”
  11. “Ghost Riders in the Sky”**
  12. “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town”**

So here’s how my little recommendation key works: Anything with an ** is a super classic, major fan favorites. All songs considered, these 12 are the most upbeat, or iconic (in solely my opinion) songs in Johnny’s arsenal. All of these songs make your head bop, feet tap, and mind race. They bring you back to an awesome time in the American Music Scene. For days when you’re feeling sad or insignificant, I suggest “Ring of Fire”, or “Girl From North County”. For an upbeat song to just put a smile on your face go for “Daddy Sang Bass”, “Boy Named Sue”, or “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” (major shout out to my dad for introducing me to Hank Williams – also a god damn legend and if you don’t know him, check him out). For the classic Johnny Cash that you’ll know most of the words to (even though you may not know it yet) check out any song with a ** next to it. The vibes are incredible, it’s a super nostalgic change of pace. It’ll take you back to the days of Studebakers, a 5 cent hamburger, and pop, swing dances, and Danny Zuko…you can’t go wrong with The Essentials by Johnny Cash!

Final Thoughts:

My first thought is to thank you. Thank YOU, the reader – personally, for supporting me through this and giving this ridiculously special article a read. Thank you for letting me talk about the good times, and suppress the bad.

Dorothy and Des…wait, no…Nannie and Pa, your influence on my life have led me to dedicate myself to creative expression. Johnny Cash was a massive part of this. Thank you both, for partially raising me on weekends, introducing me to a plethora of amazing and legendary music, teaching me how to express my thoughts and views of this amazing and limitless world and being some of the greatest fucking humans I ever had and will ever have in my life. Your legacy will live on forever in me.

Johnny, you created something so special for not only my family and myself but for the world. It’s safe to say the sound you curated inspired legends like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Patsy Cline (even though they were all kinda the same period as you, you were the first.) Johnny created a whole new type of country music that influenced an entire generation of badasses – shout out Nannie and Pa, and raised an entirely different generation of badasses – shout out Mom and Dad!

All in all, The Essentials is essential for anyone looking for a change of pace, something old-timey, or an All-American Artist. Also if you like any of the Fallout (the video game) soundtracks, I assure you Mr. Cash is right up your ally. Wanna impress any remaining grandparents you may have (or your parents if they like old school country?) listen to this album and randomly bring it up to them. Instant brownie points – you can thank me in the comments!

Again, thanks to everyone who stuck this review out. This has been ridiculously hard on me since I was the first born grandchild. It’s safe to say (not that I was their favorite or anything) but that we had a very special relationship, one that I will not only cherish until we are reunited but one that made me the young man I am today.

Endless, and infinite love and gratitude to all!

– JMac

johnny cash

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