The Sun Years

Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson are about as familiar as the faces on Mount Rushmore, and it's easy to assume that they are equally frozen in time, equally nonthreatening. They organize benefits, sing for presidents, even pitch products on occasion. But in decades past, they were the bad boys, the self-described "outlaws" who introduced a bold frankness to country songwriting and declared their independence from tired-and-untrue Music Row formulas, shaking the Nashville establishment to its roots. New traditionalists like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam — not to mention a renegade son like Hank Williams Jr. — are celebrated for their menacing attitudes and rock & rolling sound, but these grand old men invented contemporary country cool.

Recorded shortly after Elvis Presley's famed sessions at 706 Union Avenue, in Memphis, the eighteen songs collected on Johnny Cash: The Sun Years are taut, grimly elegant tales of a world where "just around the corner there's heartache." Elvis's rockabilly was expansive and free; Cash injected a bleaker strain of country history into rock — brooding, constricted, tense, stoic. Cash's songs are drenched in fatalism. "I don't like it, but I guess things happen that way," Cash sings without a shred of self-pity. In "Folsom Prison Blues," he acknowledges from his cell that "I know I can't be free" but offers no apologies. The precise, detailed imagery of masterpieces like "Big River" and "I Walk the Line," matched by the stark guitar-and-bass accompaniment of the Tennessee Two, still astonishes thirty-five years later. The influence of these recordings cannot be overestimated — they are the songs to which John Cougar Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen still aspire today.

The only ominous note on The Sun Years is struck in Cash's 1958 smash "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," when producer Jack Clement mars Cash's arrangement with a screeching soprano, superfluous instrumentation and a lame backup chorus. It proved the harbinger of the many overproduced Johnny Cash records to come.

Happily, on his latest album, Boom Chicka Boom, Cash returns to a sparer lineup. Named for the trademark guitar rhythm of Luther Perkins, the late Tennessee Two guitarist, Boom Chicka Boom reflects a mellower Cash who has no illusions about the world but seems to have reached an uneasy peace with it. He still sings of hard-luck stories and unhappy endings, but his somber tone is softened by a sense of life's absurdity. "Harley" — about a hapless factory worker who gets rich quick — takes an ironic turn when the title character's wife gives "all of Harley's hard-earned money to the Lord/Harley started drinking, wound up in Betty Ford." The good-humored folksiness in songs like "Farmer's Almanac" sounds like a more mature version of The Sun Years' defiant resignation. Unfortunately, not all of the material on Boom is firstrate; the biggest disappointment is the inappropriately stylized, self-consciously enigmatic "Hidden Shame," written by Elvis Costello.

Cash's rumbling voice hardly seems to have aged, and on Boom Chicka Boom the singer has learned to accept, and even laugh about, adversity. If this album is nowhere near as monumental as The Sun Years, it's still a vivid personal statement expressive of Cash's experiences and the distance he has traveled in his life.

Less intimate than Boom Chicka Boom but more consistent is Highwayman 2, a sequel to the million-selling 1985 summit that brought Cash together with Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson. The material these legends have chosen to perform — they wrote six of the ten songs themselves — is predictably generic and mythologizing, focusing on road songs, trains and manly self-reliance.

The familiar themes and glossy production may be a bit anonymous, but hearing Waylon and Willie trade verses on "Born and Raised in Black and White" — the story of two brothers, one an outlaw, the other, needless to say, a priest — is still thrilling. Nelson's two original contributions, "Two Stories Wide" and "Texas," are simple and effective, adding a note of vulnerability to this often larger-than-life collection.

"Songs That Made a Difference," which Cash wrote, invokes Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Roy Orbison in a wistful look back at the days when rock was discovering Nashville just as these stars were turning tail and fleeing. Intentionally or not, "Songs" leads into Kristofferson's "Living Legend," whose first line is "Was it better then, with our backs against the wall?" It's a small reminder of how the outlaws bravely followed their convictions and risked their commercial future in the name of artistic freedom.

Kristofferson certainly still prides himself on such a rebel stance. Unfortunately, Third World Warrior is a textbook example of good intentions gone awry. Kristofferson's statement on the U.S. involvement in Central America, the album is about as subtle as a Salvadoran death squad. Titles like "The Eagle and the Bear" and "Sandinista" sadly tell too much of the story. Images recur throughout Third World Warrior — soldiers killing babies, the invincibility of the human spirit — but none we haven't encountered before. Minimal, instantly forgettable melodies further bury the empty sloganeering.

Cash's records from the Fifties offer a worldview that remains compelling, while Kristofferson has fallen victim to simplistic finger pointing. Yet Kristofferson could attempt such an ambitious, intensely personal project only because of the battles he fought and won years ago alongside his buddies. The honesty and directness of these four artists changed country music forever. In "American Remains," the Highwaymen sing of farmers, gamblers and Native Americans, but of course they also sing of themselves and the dusty road they still travel. "We are heroes of the homeland," they harmonize. "And we'll ride again."