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Review: Johnny Cash, “The Greatest” Series and “We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash”

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Saddle up!  This week has brought a veritable Johnny Cash bonanza from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, and a trip to the Ponderosa isn’t even required!  As the Cash 80th birthday train continues its ride, the late artist’s longtime home is celebrating his career with four newly-curated compilations on compact disc as well as an all-star tribute concert available in DVD/CD and Blu-ray editions.  The new series The Greatest (the rare hyperbolic title that can stand up to scrutiny) premieres with four titles, each designed to illuminate a different aspect of Cash’s lengthy recording career: Country Classics, Gospel Songs, Duets, and The Number Ones.

The Number Ones (Columbia/Legacy 88691 919 80 2) is the most indispensable in the group.  Rounding up nearly thirty years of hitmaking, its 19 tracks all topped the Billboard and/or Cash Box country charts between 1956 and 1985.  Even better, The Number Ones is offered in a CD/DVD edition boasting ten never-before-released performances of these chart-topping songs from television’s The Johnny Cash Show.  This compilation solidly traces the arc of Cash’s career, from the swaggering upstart of the Sun Records days to the elder statesman near the culmination of his four-decade tenure at Columbia.

So, in many a sense, Number Ones functions as an introduction to the artist with a number of his most familiar classics in their original versions.  Befitting the multi-dimensional artist, there’s humor, drama, menace and plenty of boom-chicka-boom on this collection.   It’s bookended by stone-cold classics “I Walk the Line” (1956) and “Highwayman” (1984).  The former is as perfect, and as perfectly simple, a song as Cash – or anybody else – ever wrote.  The latter is Jimmy Webb’s cosmic opus which joined together Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in an outlaw quartet.  Friends and family play an important part on this set, as they did in Cash’s career.  Wife June Carter’s “Ring of Fire” still packs a mighty punch in its iconic mariachi-flavored arrangement, and Kristofferson’s oft-covered “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” received one of its most sympathetic performances in Cash’s hands.  Jennings recurs on 1976’s “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” one of the hidden gems on the set.  Another is “One Piece at a Time,” from the same year, an enjoyably larcenous ditty from Wayne Kemp’s pen.  Jack Clement’s story song “The One on the Right is on the Left” adroitly skewers both politics and music.  Cash’s famous prison concerts are represented, too, with the chilling “Folsom Prison Blues” from that very venue, and the raucous “A Boy Named Sue” from San Quentin.  Even Cash’s worshipful side is captured with the joyful noise of “Daddy Sang Bass.”   A set of Number Ones for Johnny Cash is a no-brainer, and it’s executed with care here.  This set is worth seeking out even to those who already own all 19 tracks on the CD for the 25-minute DVD with ten priceless live performances from The Johnny Cash Show.

Similarly well-worn territory is covered by the Gospel Songs collection (88691 90335 2).  His devotion to gospel music stayed with him throughout his entire career, from one of his earliest albums (1959’s Hymns with Johnny Cash) through one of his very last (2003’s posthumous My Mother’s Hymn Book).  Gospel songs weren’t limited to specifically-themed albums; songs of spirituality took a proud place on many of Cash’s so-called secular LPs, as well.  Even when excess and temptation ruled his private life, he found the strength to express loftier values in music, and never failed to take sacred music seriously.  These many recordings have been comprehensively anthologized in the past with 2007’s 24-track Ultimate Gospel and also on the latest installment of Cash’s Bootleg Series, The Soul of Truth.  Despite having only fourteen tracks, Gospel Songs repeats eleven of the songs from Ultimate Gospel (including Carl Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass,” which crossed over as a country hit and is also on Number Ones).  Only three songs are unique to this compilation: “Suppertime,” from 1958’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash, “Amen” from 1965’s Orange Blossom Special, and “The Masterpiece” from 1967’s From Sea to Shining Sea.  As a sampler of the spiritual side of the Man in Black, Gospel Songs hits many of the bases, but is far from the whole story.

We’ve got the rundown on the rest of the series, plus the star-studded We Walk the Line concert, after the jump!

A creatively assembled set brings together fourteen of the greatest Duets (88691 90336 2).  As Cash’s many performances with beloved wife June Carter Cash have been collected before, she takes a back seat here in favor of collaborations with fellow legends of country (George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson),  R&B (Ray Charles) and rock (the Bard of Hibbing, Bob Dylan) plus cherished family members (Tommy Cash, Anita Carter).  With all of his carefully-chosen duet partners, Cash demonstrated real kinship, bonding through a shared tradition of music that defied genre lines.  This set also features a couple harder-to-find tracks as well as songs from others’ albums with Cash as a guest star.

Lynn Anderson didn’t promise Johnny a rose garden, but she did promise, and deliver, a rip-roaring take on the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere” in this track extracted from Legacy’s terrific Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show (2007).  It’s one example of a “greatest hit” turned into a duet, but most of the songs here were specifically recorded by the artist in duet format.  Cash’s pairings with June often brought out his most playful side, as on Carl Perkins’ “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” and Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber’s “Jackson,” perhaps the quintessential Cash duet.  Both songs are fun and feisty, while the warm take on Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” could have been written for the duo.  June’s sister Anita adds a haunted a cappella part to the stark “Another Man Done Gone” from 1963’s Blood Sweat and Tears.  Another family member, Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash, appears on “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” from 1975’s The Last Gunfighter Ballad.

That Gene Autry song shares its ruminative quality about times past with other songs here, including “Crazy Old Soldier” from Ray Charles’ Friendship album (“You think I’d give up/As many times as I’ve been hit/But like a crazy old soldier/I just don’t know when to quit”), “I Wish I Was Crazy Again” with Waylon Jennings and “Jim, I Wore a Tie Today” with Willie Nelson.  Country music has always been a genre marked by its loyalty, between artists as well as between artists and audience.  Real friendship comes through on these tracks with Cash’s fellow Highwaymen, and Jennings is, in fact, the most represented duet partner here other than June.  The Cash-penned duet with Waylon, “The Greatest Cowboy of All,” is an affectionate salute to western lore.  He’s also present on “I Wish I Was Crazy Again” and “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” repeated on Number Ones.

If you missed Legacy’s expanded remaster of 1979’s Silver, you might be unfamiliar with “I Got Stripes,” revisited as a duet with George Jones, another country survivor who had, like Cash, battled substance abuse.  Billy Joe Shaver duet “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” was recorded in 1980 and unearthed for the 1997 box set The Legend.  It’s reprised here, another affirmation of faith (“There ain’t no two ways about it/I owe it all to Jesus Christ!”) from the devout Christian.

The most wide-ranging of the releases is the simply-titled Country Classics (88691 90334 2).  After all, what defines a country song?  The lines are even more blurred today, with modern country music often little more than pop with a twang.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)  To Johnny Cash, however, country songs were songs threaded with the DNA of America.  Johnny Cash’s country was ingrained in big stories of love lost and found, murder, death, revenge, melancholy, and oh yes, devastating heartbreak…often with a dollop of cheating and lying!  Country songs were unafraid to be sentimental or maudlin, so long as the singer imbued them with honesty.  As honesty was ingrained in John R. Cash, he came to define “country songs” even when they crossed over into pop, rock and gospel territory.  The fourteen songs here are lesser-known (only two were chart hits: 1979’s No. 2 “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and 1983’s No. 75 “I’m Ragged But I’m Right”) and as a result, even more worthy of re-evaluation.

A songwriter of no small stature himself, Cash also could burrow deep into a song’s heart as an interpretive singer.  Indeed, not one of this collection’s fourteen tracks was wholly written by Cash; he did adapt and arrange a couple of the songs.  Singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” you might be compelled to do just that, so deep is the well of despair.  An innate dignity keeps the singer afloat, over the bed of twangy guitars, but rawness is palpable.  The theme most explored here is, naturally, love lost.  The singer confronts the other man in “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” and the cheating lady herself in “A Wound Time Can’t Erase.”  The ironically jaunty melody is set to an acerbic lyric, delivered completely straight: “What did you have in mind when you broke this heart of mine?  Are you laughing in my face?”  Cash warns others of a gal of ill repute in “Honky Tonk Girl,” and takes matters into his own hands when he sees to it that “Delia’s Gone” for good.  (The 1961 song is heard in an alternate take, first issued in 2005.)  For those only familiar with Cash’s stark, late-in-life reassessment of the song, this comparatively jovial version might come as a shock, but the almost tossed-off arrangement only makes the lyric more chilling and blackly comical.  “The Long Black Veil” is cut from the same cloth, another example of Cash making a murder ballad his own.  He injects it with tremendous pathos:  when he asserts “Nobody knows…nobody sees…nobody knows me,” it’s heartbreaking.

Of course, the greatest country classics have been passed down from singer to singer, generation to generation, and so there are a number of songs here better-known in versions by other artists.  Cash, circa 1970, relishes Jimmy Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” a No. 1 hit for Johnny Horton in 1959.  He just missed the boat with Don Schlitz’s “The Gambler,” heard in a 1978 recording from the album Gone Girl.  It was made just six weeks before Kenny Rogers entered the studio and immortalized the song.  Cash, the master storyteller, compares favorably.  Like Rogers’ version, Cash’s was produced by Larry Butler.  The potentially-goopy “Old Shep,” about the love of a boy and his dog, was surveyed by Elvis Presley for his second album in 1956, and Cash proved there was life in the old pooch yet in 1973.  The most deathless title on Country Songs, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” was introduced by Burl Ives in 1949, recorded almost immediately thereafter by Bing Crosby, and even by Peggy Lee just a month later!  The Brian Ahern-produced rendition from 1979’s Silver didn’t break new ground for Cash or the song, but like most of the songs on Country Classics, it’s simply a textbook example of Country Singing.

Finally, the titular artist is present only in spirit for We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash documenting the recent concert of April 20, 2012 in which a host of talented musicians paid tribute to the singer.  It’s available in both Blu-ray format and CD/DVD format (88725 40738 2), and the DVD and BD both offer bonus material in addition to the core program.

Though Cash’s friends and collaborators Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson make their presence felt and bring a great deal of verisimilitude to the night, center stage is occupied by younger performers.  A crack band of Buddy Miller (guitar/vocals), Greg Leisz (steel guitar/mandolin), Ian McLagan (keyboards), Kenny Aronoff (drums) and musical director Don Was (bass) is a constant, adapting to arrangements that are alternately similar to Cash’s originals and inventively different.

Brandi Carlile’s raucous, ferocious spin on “Folsom Prison Blues” is an appropriate lead-off for the evening, and many of the performances are equally high-octane.  Band member and accomplished artist Buddy Miller takes the spotlight for the honky-tonk of “Hey Porter” and Rhett Miller of the Old 97s revitalizes his band’s namesake song with an energetic “Wreck of the Old 97.”  The temperature cools with Iron and Wine’s spare, striking rendition of “The Long Black Veil,” and the most emotional moment might come from Lucinda Williams’ lived-in version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” a late-career signature song for Johnny Cash.  Far more freewheeling is the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ fun take on a Johnny and June staple, “Jackson.”  Andy Grammer, a young artist whose debut album leans more towards pop and R&B, isn’t beholden to the past when he adorns his “Get Rhythm” with a bit of beatboxing!

Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks and Dunn, sticks close to the original arrangement of “Ring of Fire,” and Train’s Pat Monahan shows a tender side on his traditional arrangement of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”  He also harmonizes nicely with Shelby Lynne on Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.”  Kristofferson himself is as fiery as any of the younger performers on “Big River,” but considerably more grizzled and reflective on his own “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”  He’s of course also on hand for a Highwaymen reunion with Willie Nelson.  Shooter Jennings fills in for his father Waylon and Jamey Johnson fills the fourth place for the well-received, cathartic performance of Jimmy Webb’s iconic “The Highwayman.”  Shooter and Willie’s daughter Amy Nelson also team for “Cocaine Blues,” and the elder Nelson trades off with Sheryl Crow on “If I Were a Carpenter.”

A featurette (Walking the Line: The Making of a Celebration), interviews, a rehearsal clip of Willie Nelson’ s “I Still Miss Someone” and actor Matthew McConaughey’s take on “The Man Comes Around” round out the bonus material on the DVD and BD.  Though one wishes that family members like daughter Rosanne Cash, brother Tommy Cash or stepdaughter Carlene Carter could have also been in attendance, the concert is an enjoyable and upbeat reminder of Johnny Cash’s influence on a new generation of music makers.  (Alas, a BD/CD version hasn’t been made available; the DVD/CD is by default, then, the essential purchase for those interested in the audio portion.  It stands quite nicely on its own.)

Though no unreleased material was added as an incentive to any of the Greatest compilations, all make fine introductions to Johnny Cash’s deep catalogue, and affordable reminders of the breadth of that body of work for those who don’t already own everything!  All four collections have been crisply remastered by Maria Triana and feature solid liner notes essays by Anthony DeCurtis (The Number Ones) and David McGee (Gospel Songs, Duets and Country Classics) plus discographical annotation.

More exciting releases are promised from Legacy Recordings for this monumental year, and all of these projects simply confirm the fact that, for Johnny Cash and his musical family, the circle certainly won’t be broken.

Written by Joe Marchese

August 9, 2012 at 14:14

6 Responses

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  1. Love Cash, and always glad that his music remains available for listeners not yet familiar with his terrific recordings. But doesn’t it seem that Sony is re-releasing much of the same material every few years? At least these are inexpensive. But those of us who’ve previosuy bought this stuff can probaby sit this round out, except maybe for the tribute concert.


    August 9, 2012 at 14:49

  2. Disappointing that there is no bonus material, but I will still pick up The Number Ones with the DVD of unreleased performances and maybe Duests for the Ray Charles duet that I don’t have. Are any of the Country Classics tracks at least from Cash albums that haven’t made it to CD? And definitely the DVD/CD set of the tribute concert.

    I hope that Sony puts out some of the 70s albums that are still only available on vinyl (or on that Reader’s Digest box set that, unbelievably, won’t be shipped to the US by Reader’s Digest Canada!).

    Thanks for the fine report on these!


    August 9, 2012 at 15:05

    • Sony/Legacy will be releasing the Complete Columbia Collection of Johnny’s albums on October 30. There will be 63 CDs, with 59 Columbia albums and CDs of the Sun material as well.

      Jason Michael

      August 9, 2012 at 15:48

  3. Thanks for the great reviews!

    Joe mentioned above that “more exciting releases are promised from Legacy Recordings for this monumental year,” and Legacy has confirmed the box Jason mentioned in an insert in the “Number Ones” CD/DVD! The Complete Columbia Albums Collection is pictured and described as having “61 albums on 63 CDs” and the insert reads, “Includes 2 new compilations of non-album tracks.” It also refers to “35 titles released for the first time on CD in the U.S., including Cash’s first 19 albums in mono.” The box looks to be similar to the Tony Bennett set from last year. Anybody have any idea what the 61 albums are? Over at the Steve Hoffman Forums, someone has compiled a list of 59, but there seems to be even more than 61 albums based on some discographies.

    In any event, can’t wait!


    August 11, 2012 at 08:36

  4. I agree that I’m tired of getting the same tracks compiled over and over when there is so much material never released on CD. “The Complete Columbia” set is a step in the right direction, but with the price tag being in the hundreds, I’ll be sitting that one out.


    August 11, 2012 at 10:43

  5. I read that Legacy will release the complete Johnny Cash Columbia albums collection in October 30, 2012. The collection contains 63 CDs and it’s already listed on amazon for $400. The CD titles are as follows:

    The Fabulous Johnny Cash
    Hymns By Johnny Cash
    Songs Of Our Soil
    Now There Was A Song!
    Ride This Train
    Hymns From The Heart
    The Sound Of Johnny Cash
    Blood, Sweat And Tears
    Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash
    The Christmas Spirit
    Keep On The Sunny Side
    The Carter Family with special guest Johnny Cash
    I Walk The Line
    Bitter Tears: Johnny Cash Sings Ballads Of The American Indian
    Orange Blossom Special
    Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads Of The True West
    Everybody Loves A Nut
    Happiness Is You
    Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash And June Carter
    From Sea To Shining Sea
    Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
    The Holy Land
    Johnny Cash At San Quentin
    Hello, I’m Johnny Cash
    The Johnny Cash Show
    I Walk The Line -Original Soundtrack Recording
    Little Fauss And Big Halsey -Original Soundtrack Recording
    Man In Black
    A Thing Called Love
    Johnny Cash: America A 200-Year Salute In Story And Song
    Christmas -The Johnny Cash Family
    Any Old Wind That Blows
    The Gospel Road (2 Disc)
    Johnny Cash And His Woman
    Johnny Cash pa Osteraker
    Ragged Old Flag
    The Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me
    The Johnny Cash Children’s Album
    Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories
    John R. Cash
    Look At Them Beans
    Strawberry Cake
    One Piece At A Time
    The Last Gunfighter Ballad
    The Rambler
    I Would Like To See You Again
    Gone Girl
    Rockabilly Blues
    Classic Christmas
    The Baron
    The Survivors -Johnny Cash Jerry Lee Lewis Carl Perkins
    The Adventures Of Johnny Cash
    Johnny 99
    Koncert V Praze In Prague Live
    Highwayman -Waylon Jennings Willie Nelson Johnny Cash Kris Kristofferson
    Highwayman 2 -Waylon Jennings Willie Nelson Kris Kristofferson Johnny Cash
    At Madison Square Garden
    Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar
    The Singles, Plus


    August 13, 2012 at 05:59

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