While the Man in Black lived in Memphis for less than a decade -- and abandoned his tiny bungalow on Tutwiler Avenue for greener pastures nearly 50 years ago -- this city's musical history is nevertheless forever entwined with Johnny Cash. Pick up a copy of Cash's latest, American IV: The Man Comes Around, and punch up the album's second track, a scorching take on Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Drive west on I-40 for a survey of the bare cotton fields that dot the Arkansas bottomlands just across the river, and listen to the ache in his voice. Dyess-born, Memphis-made, John R. Cash may have traveled the world, but he certainly took a piece of this place with him.
And this year, his 70th, has been a fete to remember: Aside from Cash's fourth American release, 2002 also saw the reissue of a dozen of his career-spanning Columbia albums, running the gamut from 1958's The Fabulous Johnny Cash to 1979's Silver. Alternate versions, bonus tracks, and crisp remastering give Cash fans a real reason to celebrate. Can't afford to splurge? Spring for Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, a hitherto unreleased 1969 concert that features Cash, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers running through his now-legendary Sun repertoire and hits like "Long Black Veil" and "A Boy Named Sue." Curmudgeons might complain about the dated between-song banter (Cash presents his views on the Vietnam War and discusses his recent visit to Folsom Prison), but I find them strangely resonant with the politics of today. And that's not all. This year also saw the release of Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (Lucky Dog/Sony Nashville), while Michael Streissguth's engaging Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader (Da Capo Press) will fill you in on all the details. Featuring "50 years of writing" from the likes of Ralph J. Gleason and Nick Tosches, Ring of Fire neatly chronicles the travails of Cash's homespun, hard-won life.
But Cash isn't the only Memphis legend to hit the reissue bins. The West Coast-based Fantasy label is doing its part to keep the Stax label invigorated. Remastered editions of Carla Thomas' seminal Gee Whiz and William Bell's The Soul of a Bell albums are the latest in a long line of Fantasy's Stax imprint reissue series, while England's Ace Records label recently released a Rufus Thomas compilation titled The Funkiest Man as well as the must-have Stax Instrumentals comp, both licensed from the Fantasy vaults. The latter features 25 unreleased sides from The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MGs guaranteed to rattle your bones.
All four of those albums are in heavy rotation on her CD player, Carla Thomas says, along with her latest release, Memphis International's Live in Memphis. "Of course, I'm always groovin' to the oldies. That's my era, my music," Thomas says. "But I also like how the newer artists seem to be taking the R&B feel and putting a new groove on it. They're building on what we did in the beginning, and it's an acknowledgement of that, like they're giving us their respect," she says.
But has Carla Thomas heard Impala? The group, known for continuing the funky instrumental tradition à la the MGs throughout the 1990s, is currently plotting its own resurgence. Impala's slinky version of Henry Mancini's "Experiment in Terror" can be heard in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the George Clooney-directed Chuck Barris biopic that will be opening in theaters later this month. See the flick, then catch Impala live at Automatic Slim's next Saturday, December 21st. The band's first performance this century promises to be an unforgettable one, reuniting the indomitable John Stivers on guitar, Scott Bomar on bass, and Justin Thompson on trumpet, with Paul Buchignani filling in for the MIA Jeff Goggans on drums.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.