(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
In the absence of a complete Johnny Cash boxed set collection, Cash fans have to make do with what exists. To date, that consists of the five-CD American Recordings set Cash Unearthed, Germany’s Bear Family Records’ series of various boxes of two, four, five and six CDs from throughout Cash’s career, the seven-CD Varese set The Original Sun Albums: Complete Collection and various other short compilations. For years, because of licensing issues, his Sun and Columbia recordings could not coexist on the same collection. That began to change with the Legacy Records 2002 two-CD set titled The Essential Johnny Cash, which amounted to a good introduction to Cash’s body of work.
Now, Legacy extends Cash’s legacy considerably with a more complete four-CD package, Johnny Cash: The Legend, which includes a number of previously unreleased recordings. Obviously, the later American Recordings are not included, but this box features the meat and potatoes of most of Cash’s long career.
The songs come from recordings spanning more than four decades, from the early Sun Records work in the mid-1950s, through Cash’s glory years on Columbia, down to his sporadic recordings in more recent days.
There are splendid things I hadn’t heard in quite a while, such as the fine collaboration on “One More Ride” by Cash, Doc Watson and Marty Stuart from the latter’s 1991 CD Busy Bee Café. And the old Sun songs retain their shine. Just listen to “The Wreck of the Old 97” from 1957 with just Cash and guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant working their minimalist musical magic. Or a sparkling version of Gene Autry’s “Goodbye, Little Darlin’.” Other old early Sun singles still sound brand new when listened to back-to-back, such as “I Walk the Line” followed by “There You Go” and “Home of the Blues” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “The Ways of a Woman in Love.”
There are also reminders of how Cash’s work was squeezed by commercial pressures: 1963’s trumpet-laden “Ring of Fire” was soon followed by the sound-alike “The Matador.” And the same trumpets lingered in the subsequent — but lovely — “Understand Your Man.” And the same sound lingered in 1967’s forgettable “Rosanna’s Going Wild.”
The unreleased material here, except for one cut, comes directly from a forgotten trove of tapes in the House of Cash, which had been closed for some time since disastrous flooding hit the property. Gregg Geller, who produced Johnny Cash: The Legend, found a stash of hundreds of tapes, that bore little documentation, in a room behind the House of Cash studio. After a thorough study, many of them proved to be routine demos of songwriters pitching songs to the House of Cash. Others were album tracks that had been set aside and forgotten.
But there were some gems strewn among the many tapes. Among the several previously unreleased cuts are a stark early cut of the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” from 1954 or 1955 with Perkins and Grant. Cash does a dynamic version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” with Shaver adding vocals and guitar, from 1980. Elvis Costello joins Cash on the rare George Jones composition “We Ought to Be Ashamed,” which was recorded during Christmas 1979 in the home of Nick Lowe and his then-wife Carlene Carter (Cash’s stepdaughter and June Carter Cash’s daughter), with Dave Edmunds producing.
The final treasure was a song called “It Takes One to Know Me.” First, it appeared with no songwriter credit as a 1977 vocal demo by Cash, accompanying himself on guitar. A tape later found was a demo by the song’s writer, Carlene Carter. Yet another tape yielded a rough of a vocal duet of the song by Cash and June Carter Cash over string section tracks. Ultimately, Johnny and June’s son, John Carter Cash, produced a finished version of the song with backing vocals by his wife, Laura, and himself and a vocal by Carlene Carter. The result is well worth the effort.
What’s missing here? Not much, as long as you can’t possibly include everything on a four-CD box. I would love to hear again such Cash miscues as “The Chicken in Black.” Cash did have quite a sense a humor, even though it was mostly masqueraded.
Ultimately, this is a very well-designed, intelligently packaged boxed set, one that’s worthy of the rich, still unfolding Johnny Cash legacy.