It's already a little odd to hear Johnny Cash's voice. A few weeks ago, hearing classic recordings of that resonant, somewhat scary baritone boom out of the speakers was like hearing old records by any of your favorite singers: You notice what's different about them now, and what's stayed part of their vocal personality. But just three days after his death, when this CD of recordings made live on the legendary Louisiana Hayride radio show arrived, it's suddenly Hank-Williams ghostly: foggy with time, trapped in an era that seems sadly gone -- more sadly, more perceptibly perhaps, than ever before.
The Louisiana Hayride was, of course, the "cradle of the stars," the prep-school live-radio-broadcast step before the Grand Ole Opry. Elvis solidified his fame on the show, and everyone from Cash and Carter to George Jones and Johnny Horton jumped on the Hayride in its heyday. These separate discs of Johnny's and June's recordings were made largely before Carter joined the Johnny Cash Show (in more ways than one). But the similarities are there already. For example, June Carter is well known for her confused-country-girl wit, and shows it on several "comedy" bits, joking about Elvis and her own onstage innocence. But it's Johnny whose deadpan is almost Dean Martin-esque here, remarking that "the fella on the chewing gum is the best bass player onstage right now," and pandering honestly to the military men in the live audience: "I was in the Air Force for 12 years, from '50 to '54."
Johnny Cash playing with the Tennessee Two and in similarly small instrumental settings is one of the great stripped-down power sources of country music. Here, it's mostly classics -- hits at the time of recording -- done in streamlined, two-minute rages that make it obvious where rockabilly's abandon came from. "Big River," "I Walk the Line," and even the homey "Guess Things Happen That Way" seem forcefully confident in these made-for-radio bursts.
But while each of these discs has its moments -- Johnny Cash's is almost all "moments" -- they remain largely novelties to average fans, and must-haves for the passionate. It's cliché to argue that CD format ruins some music, but here that fact shines through: It's annoying when the crackles and pops of an old recording get remastered, and heightened accidentally in the process. And it's absurd when the other radio stations picked up on the original recording increase in clarity on June's disc. It sounds minor, but it's not: The imperfections in these old recordings are so clear, so concise, that they sound like a hipster band's falsely aged studio conceits, fake and sad.
Fortunately, no amount of age and digital desecration can drown the ecstatic sounds of two of American music's most important participants, both of whom may have receded out of sight this year, but who won't disappear from our minds any time soon.