- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

Country Music Television just started a weekly countdown called the “All-Time Top 40,” in which today’s Nashville stars rank the artists who shaped them musically.

The countdown started Saturday, with three artists — Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson and Aerosmith (ummm OK) — tied at No. 40, and every week CMT will tick down the list until December, when No. 1 is revealed.

Now I don’t want to spoil the suspense or anything, but if you’ve been listening to music — country or otherwise — for the last quarter century, I think it’s pretty obvious who’s going to be at the top of that ranking in nine months.

A generation ago, you could’ve bet the mortgage the answer would be Hank Williams (uh, Sr.). A couple of decades earlier, you would have had a great argument for Jimmy Rodgers.

Now, Hank Williams still gets a lot of respect in country circles, but when was the last time you actually heard “Your Cheatin’ Heart?” And, frankly, I doubt Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan even knows who the Singing Brakeman was.

But go ahead and pencil in Hank Williams Sr. at No. 2 on that list. Put Merle Haggard, George Jones and Patsy Cline there right under the top, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good Mount Rushmore of country music.

Old school, sure, but who would you put above those four?

There’s only one answer to that rhetorical question: The Man in Black. It’s not much of a limb, but I’ll climb out right there and predict that the CMT countdown will tick down to Johnny Cash.

While those older stars and their hits fade in memory, Cash, who died in 2003, seems to burn as brightly today as he ever did.

There’s a whole new generation of young music fans — and young country performers — who know Cash from the groundbreaking “American Recordings,” his stunning late-career collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. They’ve also seen 2005’s Golden Globe-winning “Walk the Line,” or trekked to Broadway or the Kennedy Center to see the Tony Award-winning “Million Dollar Quartet.”

They’ve downloaded his songs and listened to the buzz and hum of his distinctive baritone rumble with dark energy. They know he was a rebel, that he didn’t play by the rules, that he was effortlessly cool.

That young audience, like their parents and grandparents before them, is transfixed by the epic arc of Cash’s extraordinary life. From the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s at Sun Records in Memphis with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, to his tempestuous lifelong love story with June Carter Cash, to his gut-wrenching battle against age captured in the 2000s on the haunting video for “Hurt,” Cash has transcended genre to become a symbol of authentic Americana.

It’s why one of the most anticipated albums of the year is “Out Among the Stars,” an unreleased Cash project recorded in the 1980s. Uncovered by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, the resurrected album is due to be released next week by Legacy Recordings.

Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t premiere at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts like another posthumous Cash release, 2006’s “American V: A Hundred Highways.”

In anticipation of the release, Legacy and the Cash family hired movie director John Hillcoat, known for the post-apocalyptic film “The Road,” to put together a video for “She Used to Love Me Alot,” the first single off the new album.

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