No one inhabits the concept "country music singer" like Johnny Cash. And yet to call Cash "a country music singer" doesn't begin to describe him. He rises above categories. Until Elvis got into the country hall of fame two years ago, Cash was the only person honored in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame. Hip-hop/rock artist Kid Rock, in his latest salvo, describes Cash simply as a true "American bad-ass," rhymed with none other than Grand Master Flash.

With a reputation established early on as a dangerous man, a party animal who used drugs, frequented prisons, and retold some of the darkest tales of society's criminal underbelly, Cash has also expressed a consistent religious faith over the years. Personally, as in his music, he resists simple classifications, to the consternation of those who want him to be a saint or a sinner, not a human mixture. His friend Kris Kristofferson has described Cash as "a walking contradiction." Nowhere is that more apparent than on the new three-disc celebration of his five decades of recording--"Love, God, Murder."

It's his refusal to be diminished, itemized, and coded that gives the songs in this collection their credibility and power. Cash's tunes demand to be taken as a whole, not limited to a caricature or sound bite. His claims of love are no more or less passionate than his demands of revenge for a wrong done. His claims of faith in God's forgiveness at the hands of Jesus are no more or less earnest than his acknowledgement of his sinful deeds. This bold collection, picked by Cash himself, seeks to hold the disparate elements in balance, without denying the integrity and uniqueness of each.

If Cash has a simple side, it's his straightforward mix of folk storytelling and country approachability. That "boom-chicka-boom" rhythm, and that deep, robust bass voice have become as recognizable as his wardrobe. For each of the discs, there is a fresh reflection by Cash and essays by Johnny's wife, June Carter Cash, on love; Bono of U2 on God; and Quentin Tarantino, the director of frenetically violent movies, on murder.

In the songs that Cash has written over the years, and those he's covered and made his own--June Carter's "Ring of Fire," Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord," and Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman"--all featured here--the common theme is passion. Passion fills up his spiritual and human longings, which lead to acts of love or, when rebuffed or misfired, to acts of violence.

Murder, then, like a lot of sinful behavior in Cash's music, erupts from human error and suffering. From the murderer's confession in "Delia's Gone" (here from the 1961 version of the Silbersdorf and Toops song, not the 1994 version that opened his comeback album "American Recordings") to the warnings of the mother in Cash's 1958 classic "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," Cash understands the violent impulses of human beings. Of these stories of "robbers, liars, and murders," Cash writes: "These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it."

Other standouts are the live version of T.J. Arnall's "Cocaine Blues," "Hardin Wouldn't Run," and "Jacob Green," Cash's rich exposition of mistreatment at the hands of the law. Cash understands and even expects violence in the world, but it's clear that people are to be valued and corruption overcome.

Despite his rugged persona, most of Cash's best-known songs are on the "Love" disc. "I Walk the Line," his 1956 declaration of commitment, is the standard of Cash's no-hype, what-you-see-is-what-you-get integrity. His love songs vibrate with an intense physicality: "Flesh and Blood," "I Tremble for You," and "While I've Got It on My Mind." The pain of love denied, in songs like "A Little at a Time," "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," and "I Still Miss Someone" can make a listener wince.

But in his spiritual music, we get to appreciate Cash for all that he is. "To me," he writes, "God likes a Southern accent and tolerates country music and quite a bit of guitar." He describes the "God" selections as a "complicated mix of gospels, spirituals and songs of praise. At times, I'm a voice crying in the wilderness, but at times I'm right on the money and I know what I'm singing about. It's about sharing, praise, worship, wonder and wisdom. So, share in the joy here and maybe the rest will follow for all of us."

Whether it is dressing up Christ as "The Greatest Cowboy of All," or asking the question "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?," it is crucial to Cash's relationship to God that Jesus is indeed incarnated: God shares in human experience, participates in the nitty-gritty of life. That conviction seems to give Cash confidence that his sin is overcome in "The Old Account," knowing that the "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" will get a kind response. Cash seems to identify with the miraculous transformation of the Apostle Paul, from sinner to missionary, always against great opposition.

These songs are there to remind us that Cash solidified his place in his industry and in our imaginations years ago. Nonetheless, he has recently returned to the public eye with records made with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin, in which he reinvested classic material with fresh energy, as well as covered songs by young artists like Beck, Soundgarden, and Danzig. Success has never drained his vibrant soul of passion for life and art.

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