The Man in Black's career was a tale of ups and downs, of pain and redemption. And musical surprises.
When one starts looking at some of Johnny Cash's musical collaborations, one finds the expected — his work with June Carter, of course, ranks high, as does his collaborations with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, otherwise know as country's greatest supergroup, The Highwaymen. Keep digging a bit though, and you find a slate of unexpected duets — from preachers to puppets, from legends to novelties.
The list, once unfolded, also provides a microcosm of the man's life — illuminating everything from his sly sense of humour to his dark intensity.
Let's take a look.
The Muppets: In mid-August 1980, Cash took to the set of the popular The Muppet Show and laid down a feel-good version of “Orange Blossom Special,” backed by Lubbock Lou and the Jughuggers, then joined by a gussied-up Miss Piggy.
C'mon, "everybody make like a train now."
Sesame Street: The Muppet Show wasn't Cash's only collaboration with Jim Henson's cadre of puppets. Prior to the Miss Piggy duet, in season five of Sesame Street (1973-1974) Johnny Trash laid down "Nasty Dan" with everyone's favourite trash-can-dwelling grouch.
He also returned to the show in April 1993 and performed "Tall Tale" with "Noah Cowherd".
Louis Armstrong: "This country has given the world three original art forms: country music, jazz and Louis Armstrong," said Cash on the set of his show in October 1970. Then, after Louis Armstrong performed his country song "Crystal Chandeliers", he grabbed his trumpet and was joined by Cash on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9."
Cash's yodel and Armstrong's scat mix well on this one.
Ray Charles: Here is a gem. This collaboration was recorded in 1981, but never published. The track was lost and forgotten until the president of the Ray Charles Foundation uncovered it in 2009. The duet, a cover of Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord," was included on the 2010 compilation, Rare Genius.
Cash wrote a letter to Charles about the track in December 1981, stating: "I hope you like this tape. I realise that the orchestration isn't big and I don't sing very good, but I think the thing has a feeling and a quality that the fans would really enjoy."
Roy Orbison: After Roy Orbison plays his hit "Crying," Cash teams up with the crooner on "Pretty Woman." Watch for "Mercy … that’s my line."
Neil Young: What's this? Neil Young and Johnny Cash team up for... "A Little Drummer Boy." Whose idea was this? I’d like to thank that person. Here it is, from Ben Keith's 1994 Christmas album, Seven Gates.
Bob Dylan: Behold two of America's greatest musical icons, together in February 1969 at Nashville's CBS studios. The duo recorded 12 songs during the session, with one ("Girl from the North Country") making the cut for Dylan's Nashville Skyline. However, the clear chemistry between the two legends makes a music fan wish for much more.
John Denver: Cash visited John Denver's home, and the duo recorded one of Denver's biggest hits, “Country Roads.” Listen to the harmonizing here:
Hank Williams Jr.: Here, Cash and Hank Williams Jr. sing about hard times and turning the other cheek.
Kris Kristofferson: There are certainly plenty of clips of these two legends and friends trading verses, but here's an early one of the two Highwaymen working on the classic "Sunday Morning Coming Down:"
The Statler Brothers and the Carter Family: Cash teams up with the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family on "Daddy Sang Bass:"
Reverend Billy Graham: "America's pastor" Billy Graham lays down a spoken word track on this duet, "The Preacher Said," on a 1971 episode of The Johnny Cash Show.
The Blackwood Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers: "It takes a lot of talent and a lot of work and a lot of spirit to sing gospel music well. And the different harmonies … are a joy to sing." Cash goes gospel with not one, two, but three gospel groups – the Blackwood Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers – on "Salvation Has Been Brought Down."
Nirvana/Soundgarden/Alice in Chains: Members of some of grunge's biggest acts – Krist Novoselic (Nirvana), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Sean Kinney (Alice in Chains) – sat down with Cash and his son, John Carter Cash and recorded a cover of “The Time of the Preacher,” a song written by Willie Nelson.
U2: With U2 at the beginning of its experimentation with electronic music, it seemed an odd time to collaborate with the country legend. But Bono and Cash’s penchant for themes of loss, redemption and spirituality coalesce on “The Wanderer,” from 1993's Zooropa. Both Bono and Cash recorded vocals for this track at the recording session in Dublin, with the band preferring Cash's world-weary take.
Nick Cave: To be familiar with Nick Cave is to know that Cash is one of his idols, and walks the same thematic ground as Cash did. Here, the Aussie singer-songwriter has the chance to work with Cash on the Hank Williams' classic, “I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Joanne Cash on growing up with Johnny Cash [AUDIO SLIDESHOW]
Johnny Cash's life in four frames [COMIC]
Colin Linden, Lindi Ortega, the Stella Sisters light up Nashville
Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" as a Google Map
Kris Kristofferson to the Louvin Brothers: When country meets gospel
From the archives: Johnny Cash on drugs, recovery, faith and marriage
Johnny Cash's spiritual side shines on Bootleg Volume IV
Johnny Cash to Marty Robbins: Story songs in country
on Mar 10, 2012