- 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.

Rich with loss and regret, the song would have fit perfectly on one of the melancholy “American” albums that came 20 years later. If that isn’t enough reason to check it out, Mr. Hillcoat’s video ought to do the trick.

The Australian director splices together some Cash-related shots with dark images of the poor and downtrodden on forgotten, trash-strewn streets, along with a couple of pointed visual references to Wall Street.

The video, he said, is an “homage to the very reason Cash always wore black: to the shameful increase of the disenfranchised and outsiders” in the U.S.

Hmm it’ll be interesting to see if country radio can find any room in the 24-7 rotation of beer-truck and party songs to give that a spin.

Including “She Used to Love Me Alot,” the album features 12 tracks that Cash originally recorded with Country Music Hall of Famer Billy Sherrill, a producer and former president of CBS Records Nashville.

The project came along at a low point in Cash’s career, and was shelved and forgotten when he parted ways with Columbia Records.

But among the reasons for the buzz are a couple of new duets with the late Waylon Jennings and the late June Carter Cash, and some session work from guitarist Marty Stuart, who returned to the project to update the sound.

Cash’s son told the Associated Press he was stunned to find the tapes for the sessions among his parents’ archives.

“We were, like, ‘My goodness, this is a beautiful record that nobody has ever heard,’” he said. “Johnny Cash is in the very prime of his voice for his lifetime. He’s pitch perfect.”

If the first single is any indication, “Out Among the Stars” should be a worthy addition to the canon of a true American original and — for my money — the most influential country artist ever: Johnny Cash.