Most of the country artists listed below are already in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Spend some time with these superb career compilations from 2005 and you’ll soon understand why.
The Legend of Johnny Cash (Universal/Sony BMG)
This isn’t the most comprehensive Cash collection on the market, but it’s an ideal disc for people who only know the Man in Black through “Hurt,” and, now, the Walk the Line film. It’s missing a few early hits, like “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” but doesn’t shy away from his daring comeback work on the American Recordings label. Nearly every rock show I attended in 2005 included a cover of “Ring of Fire,” but no one can touch the original.
Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash — Her Life in Music (Columbia/Legacy)
This gifted comedienne has finally been given the serious retrospective she deserves. Unearthing so many rarities must have been an enormous chore, but the music on this double-disc package is truly enlightening. (It covers 64 years of singing!) It’s worth savoring the beautiful packaging, amazing photos and heartfelt liner notes, too. Keeping on the sunny side is certainly a fine New Year’s resolution for all of us.
The Very Best of Rosanne Cash (Columbia/Legacy)
Although not sequenced in chronological order, the songs here represent Cash’s finest musical moments — from the country hits of the ’80s (“Seven Year Ache”), the soul-searching of the ’90s (“The Wheel”) and even 2003′s stunning duet with her father, “September When It Comes.” An extremely satisfying set for fans of smart singer-songwriters.
The Very Best of Emmylou Harris: Heartaches & Highways (Rhino/Warner)
Assembled with Harris’ blessing and handpicked track listing, this single disc covers a lot of ground. From “Love Hurts” (with Gram Parsons) to “Orphan Girl” (written by Gillian Welch), her heartaches and highways trace a fascinating path. In addition, she graciously includes two signature non-hits: “Boulder to Birmingham” and “Pancho and Lefty.” The new song, “The Connection,” is nominated for a Grammy.
Loretta Lynn, The Definitive Collection (MCA Nashville)
If you can recite lines to the film, Coal Miner’s Daughter, you owe it to yourself to pick up this set. Taken from the mid-1960s throughout the 1970s, these 25 successful singles reveal why Lynn will always remain a pioneering songwriter (she’s a tough-talker) and a lively personality (“The Pill,” “You’re Looking at Country”). It’s hard to fathom that any artist will ever remake these hits because most of them are pretty much perfect already.
Reba McEntire, Reba #1s (MCA Nashville)
One of the most popular singers of the 1980s and 1990s in any style of music, McEntire refuses to slow down. Not all of her singles reached No. 1 (no “Fancy” here), but you can’t deny that she can pick a hit, from “How Blue” to “You Lie” to “I’m a Survivor.” Until the release of a boxed set — now there’s a Christmas wish — this collection provides an eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable look at this superstar’s success so far.
The Essential Dolly Parton (RCA/Legacy)
Essential, definitely. For fans of traditional Dolly, the first disc contains “Coat of Many Colors,” “Joshua,” “Jolene” and so on. For those who prefer the contemporary, disc two offers “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5,” “Islands in the Stream” and many more. Blessed with a winning personality, staggering talent and a desire to compete, it’s no wonder she remains a hero to singers, songwriters and celebrities everywhere.
The Essential Marty Robbins (Columbia/Legacy)
It’s about time for a Marty Robbins revival. But until he crops up on a hipster soundtrack, this retrospective will serve you well. Though he’s best known for his Western-tinged epic narrative, “El Paso” (which he wrote), this collection covers all of his most popular singles throughout his 30-year career, including the tantalizing “Devil Woman,” the swooning “Don’t Worry” and dozens more. Hollywood music scouts, are you listening?