Friday, August 05, 2005


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 5, 2005

Although I consider myself a true Johnny Cash devotee, I have to admit I wasn’t all that excited when I heard that Columbia Legacy was planning to release yet another Johnny Cash box set this year.

After all, more than a decade ago they released what could be considered a definite Cash box, the 3-disc The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983. Perhaps a companion set (“1984-2003“?) might be in order. (Actually none of Cash‘s acclaimed American Recordings series from the final years of his life are here. But don’t worry, that period was compiled on another box set, Unearthed, released last year by American Recordings.)

But did the free world really need yet another collection featuring “I Walk the Line,” “Hey Porter,” “Ring of Fire,” etc. etc.?

Indeed, long before he died Cash was one of those artists doomed to an eternity of reissue after reissue. And there’s even two versions of the new one, called The Legend, the “standard” 4-disc model, and a deluxe limited “coffee-table” edition that includes a fifth CD -- an low-fi, all-too-short but thoroughly entertaining 1954 Memphis radio show featuring songs and local ads -- plus a DVD (more on that later.)

Despite the plethora of Cash standbys that any fan has to already have, there’s a truckload of lesser-known Cash tunes (such as “The Matador,”), obscurities (like his singing cowboy tribute “Who’s Gene Autry?”) and a smattering of previously unreleased songs to keep things interesting.

While nearly all of the first two discs have been on previous collections, the second two are more interesting.

Disc 3, called “The Great American Songbook” consists of country classics (“The Great Speckled Bird,” “In the Jailhouse Now,” “Time Changes Everything” and Cash versions of hoary Americana standards -- “Casey Jones,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “The Streets of Laredo.” Cash sings these with authority and no cheap irony. He’s the only singer I know who could get away recording “I’ve Been working on the Railroad” with a straight face.

The final disc “Family and Friends” consists of collaborations. The most impressive tracks here are the spooky “Another Man Done Gone” featuring sister-in-law Anita Carter; a duet with Ray Charles on a sweet waltz called “Crazy Old Soldier”; an acoustic “One More Ride” with Marty Stuart and former son-in-law Rodney Crowell’s ode to J.C. “I Walk the Line (Revisited).”

Little Junie
As far as retrospectives go, I’m actually more impressed with Keep on The Sunny Side the new two-disc collection by Cash’s wife June Carter Cash.

It starts off with just a few seconds of June as a 10-year-old singing with The Carter Family on the radio in 1939, then, like a dream, a short segment of the tiny precocious June from the same year singing “O Susana” -- or as she pronounces it, “Oh Susie-anna.”

The collection skips ahead 10 years with June singing a sex-charged, faux-hillbilly tune, “Root Hog or Die” with Chet Atkins on guitar.

While I love June’s work with Johnny (yes, “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter” are included in this collection as well as The Legend) and her late period solo work (which also is well represented here), the old recordings from the ’40s and ’50s are a revelation.

Back in those early days, Nashville apparently was trying to market June as a real hillbilly version of Dorothy Shay (“The Park Avenue Hillbilly”). Perhaps it was artistically limited — and clearly June was capable of all sorts of material — but she sure was good at the funny, sexy stuff.

There’s a couple of comical tunes with Homer & Jethro, some equally funny solo songs from the early ‘50s, (her trademark growl was well established on 1952’s “Jukebox Blues”), lots of songs with her mother Maybelle and her sisters and even a duet with her first husband Carl Smith, “Love Oh Crazy Love.”

J.C. on DVD
In addition to these music discs, there’s been a spate of Johnny Cash DVDs released lately. What’s lacking here is a compilation of Cash’s 1969-71 ABC television show, which not only showed Cash at his prime, but included musical guests like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and Louis Armstrong -- not to mention the biggest country stars of the day.

* Included in the deluxe version of The Legend is a DVD featuring a 1980 CBS Johnny Cash special called The First 25 Years.
In some ways, this was a strange period for Cash. Basically this was around the start of his “missing years.” After years of being drug-free, Cash, around this period became addicted to pain pills. By this time, the dawn of the “Urban Cowboy” era, he’d virtually disappeared from country radio. Columbia would soon unceremoniously dump him. He’d be largely ignored by mass media for nearly 15 years until his comeback with American Recordings, in which he was marketed as an “alternative” rock star.

But despite all this, and despite being slightly marred by the corny Danny Davis-style Nashville horn section (sometime in the ’70s a lot of country stars added useless horns to “modernize” their sound). Johnny himself sounds loaded for bear. He sings all those old songs everyone’s heard a billion times before as if he’s just discovering them and wants to spread the excitement.

Guests here include Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The Statler Brothers sing a song called “I Got Paid by Cash,” about their long stint as Cash’s back-up vocalists. And there’s footage of Cash’s mother-in-law Maybelle Carter, who had died a couple of years before the show.

*Johnny Cash Live at Montreux 1994. Here’s Johnny at the outset of his final round of fame, performing at the famed Swiss jazz festival shortly after the release of American Recordings.

With a basic band (no horn section!) he does a set of greatest hits, an acoustic solo set of tunes from the recent album and some more greatest hits with the band, including a couple of classics with June.

Cash doesn’t quite have the fire here that he still had even in the 1980 show. But by this point, he’s acquired the countenance of a Biblical prophet. He’s still an entertainer, but he’s quickly evolving into an American oracle.

* Ridin’ The Rails: The Great American Train Story. This is a 1974 television special about the history of the railroad, hosted by JC, who interrupts his narrative with songs.

There’s a too-short version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and dramatizations of “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” and “Casey Jones” (done as a medley with “The Wreck of the Old 97.”

Cash sings a couple of verses from protest songs about the railroads, written by wagoneers and canal workers who (rightfully) feared losing their jobs to the iron horse.

And there’s a wonderful obscure hobo song called “Crystal Chandeliers and Burgandy.”

There’s plenty of nostalgic corn here, with a big dose of unjustified optimism about Amtrak, which was created just a few years before this special. But after watching it, I decided that my teenage son had to take a train trip while he still had a chance. We’re taking a train to California later this summer.

(Here's a flashback to last summer when Johnny Cash fans took to the streets!)

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