Johnny Cash's departure is an emotional event, no matter how long his fans have prepared for it. He was said to be on death's doorstep so often in the last few years that we got used to looking back fondly, to confirming just how large an icon he is, to absorbing the lessons he had to teach about life's contradictions. Now come the testimonials and eulogies, including tributes from Nashville institutions who neglected him shamefully during his old age as his muse led him further away from what they thought they could sell.

When I heard June Carter Cash died last May, I figured the Man in Black had a few weeks left at best. He'd be the first to say that he only made it this long because of her, that she saved him from his most self-destructive impulses. But he stuck it out for months, long enough to see the public embrace his video for "Hurt," a more haunting farewell than any those left behind could provide - because unlike the rest of us, Cash didn't need to emphasize the positive. CMT can remind us now of the hits and the good times; Johnny Cash would go the King Solomon route, reminding us that all those gold records mean little in the end.

Next Tuesday sees the release of two archival discs that present Johnny and June just as their life together began. Culled from late '50s and early '60s performances, the Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride discs (Scena Records) are as lo-fi as the real thing: Close your eyes, and the static and glitches might convince you that you're huddled in front of an old cabinet radio, hearing these broadcasts for the first time.

But those sonic blemishes aren't the only evidence of the decades that have passed. Over and over on the June Carter disc, the young performer reminds us just how much sensibilities have changed over the years. She's trying to be a comedian, and her jokes are corny even by Grand Ole Opry standards. Carter recites her "famous poems" with bumpkin naiveté and laughs at her stories while she's telling them.

On a 1962 track recorded during one of the Carters' early tours with Cash's troupe, June makes a crack or two at his expense: "He's wearing a new aftershave lotion called 'Come An' Get It,'" she says, "but it don't bother me none, I wear a new perfume called 'I Wouldn't Know What To Do With It If I Got It." (Carter proved that wasn't the case later on, when she co-penned "Ring Of Fire," an ode to illicit love as passionate as her jokes were goofy.)

If Carter's song list is constantly interrupted by the speed bumps of her comedy, Cash's banter flows more easily ("I was in the Air Force for 12 years, from '50 to '54.") And the songs themselves hit listeners at full speed: "Rock Island Line" chugs along almost faster than he can spit the words out, and "Hey Porter" is fresh from the Sun recording booth in 1955. "Guess Things Happen That Way" sounds as if it were recorded in a cavern, a lonely sound that's appropriate for the song's reluctant stoicism, but favorites like "Five Feet High And Rising" and "I Got Stripes" are jauntier.

Throughout, Cash sings of hardships, heartaches and resentments with good humor; not until his career's late stages would he let the morbid content of his songs weigh down their delivery. Those records, the American Recordings series especially, are treasures in their own way. But we love Johnny Cash, and will continue to love him, because even in those darkest moments he retained the spirit of the man on these tapes; he saw the dark and the light in the world at the same time, and walked the line between them with considerably more grace than most of us can muster. •


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