Like his fellow Sun icons Elvis and Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash's oeuvre is expansive to the point of self-contradiction: amphetamine-powered rockabilly, family gospel, populist folk anthems, commercial jingles, outlaw honky-tonk, polite countrypolitan, modern Americana for the alternative scene, prime-time pop, etc. etc. etc. Another attribute he shared with The King and The Killer was a complete inability to grasp his own strengths and weaknesses as an artist. His highs are wildly visionary, some of the best American music of the 20th century. His lows, meanwhile, are absolutely painful to witness.
My personal relationship with Cash's music revolves around the amphetamine-powered rockabilly. That's what I love most. Most of this stuff -- "Folsom Prison Blues," "Big River," "I Walk the Line," "Hey Porter!", "Get Rhythm" -- was recorded in 1955 and '56 for Sam Phillips' Sun Records. Now in all honesty, these sides aren't textbook rockabilly, not like "Mystery Train," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Cash's roots in the walking twang and rural fatalism of older country-music forms (honky-tonk, hillbilly boogie, country gospel) were firmer than those of his Sun labelmates.
But this doesn't mean he didn't rock. He and his Tennessee Two (later Three) most certainly did. Whereas Elvis and Jerry Lee used their restlessness and angst to break free from the rural community that birthed them, Cash holed up in a sleazeball motel right downtown (the "Home of the Blues") and unleashed a reign of terror on that same citizenry. An apocalyptic menace that's unique to him pulsates through this music. You can hear it when his loping baritone wails, "Soon your sugar daddies will all be gone/ You'll wake up some cold day and find you're alone/ You'll call to me but I'm gonna tell you, 'Bye, bye, bye'/ When I turn around and walk away, you'll cry, cry, cry." Or see "Big River," wherein he sins hard and grants himself God-like powers: "I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky."
Even though Cash's outsider persona, the whole Man in Black shtick, would only grow over time, the actual rock in his music slowly fell silent, only to erupt violently every now and then, as on "Ring of Fire" or the prison albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. It's strange, really. Cash is something of a contradiction. His legacy is that of a country giant, yet his most powerful moments as an artist were dependent on the proximity of his orbit to that devil rock 'n' roll. Here's a sampling of his best, most devilish moments.