Feb. 26: Hey! Why aren’t you wearing black today like you’re supposed to? That’s right — today would have been Johnny Cash’s 78th birthday, and his final producer, Rick Rubin, wants the world to sartorially honor the Man in Black upon the release of the last of the American Sessions material. Thanks, but I’ll go against the grain and pull three obscure numbers from my favorite Cash era, the days when he was a man who occasionally performed in white — as a Sun Records artist. Hear and learn more about ’em on the jump.

I first heard them when, in my late teens, I ordered – all the way from England! – the 1984 LP box set The Sun Years: Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two on Charly Records. Full of alternate takes, demos and studio chatter, it was my initial exposure to the depths of Cash’s Sun catalog. I could have chosen a dozen such songs today, but these three stand out for their lyrics, melodies or performances. One was a cut off Cash’s first album, the other two were released as singles long after big John had left Sun for Columbia in 1958. The commentary comes not from me but from the liner notes to that box set, written by Hank Davis, Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. (© 1984 Charly Records Ltd.) I endorse them wholeheartedly! If you want to know more about Cash’s Sun output, check out this discography.

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“Country Boy”

Released Oct. 11, 1957, Sun LP-1220, Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar. Recorded Aug. 4, 1957.

“ ‘Country Boy’ is such a fine composition that one can hardly believe it’s not an industry standard … a finely crafted tribute to the simple joys of a rural childhood. The song is taken uptempo and is chock-full of memorable images. Cash offers another of his rapid-fire deliveries … Luther [Perkins, guitarist in the Tennessee Two] contributes one of his rare high string solos.”

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“Port of Lonely Hearts”

Released Oct. 25, 1960, Sun 347, and Oct. 21, 1961, Sun LP-1255, Now Here’s Johnny Cash. Recorded late spring, 1955.

“This was one of the few occasions during his association with Sun when Cash overdubbed a vocal; a duet of sorts, although it’s rooted in call and response rather than hillbilly harmonies. The record is really a simple demo, which is no doubt why it was held back during the period of Cash’s overproduced hits [late in his Sun career]. But it’s a gem! … There are some arresting images: ‘watching for your topsail’ stays in the memory 20 years after the first listen.”

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“Blue Train”

Released April 27, 1962, Sun 376, and Nov. 16, 1962, Sun LP-1270, All Aboard The Blue Train. Recorded May 28, 1958.

“Who would have thought that there was still a vintage train song left in the Johnny Cash catalogue when Sun sprang this single on an unsuspecting public in 1962? … Compared to his earlier train songs, ‘Blue Train’ seemed a little self-conscious and lyrically awkward in places. Nevertheless, it’s a fine early-sounding piece of material with engaging 4-bar Luther solos cropping up between verses. … The song was originally credited to Cash on its single release but was actually composed by Billy Smith from Fayetteville, Tennessee.”

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