(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Johnny Cash will never go away.
In a world with fewer and fewer musical verities, his legacy grows ever more important and significant. And, just as with other music giants such as Hank Williams and Duke Ellington, Cash has come to stand for much more than the music.
But it’s certainly good to have some new Cash recordings to hear. By “new,” I mean some previously-unreleased and generally-unheard recordings. Specifically, the new From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II.
It delves into the largely obscure collection of Cash’s early radio show in Memphis, home recordings, radio show appearances, demos, outtakes, neglected single releases and the like. In other words, these are the necessary building blocks that go into constructing an entire life’s work.
The first volume in this series of Cash’s musical back story was the 2006 Personal File. That was — and is — a gem of a package consisting of songs and hymns Cash recorded and kept in a secret file at his House of Cash. They were not discovered until after his death.
The 57 tracks in this new two-CD package chronologically track the back story of Cash’s career through the ’50s and ’60s. It begins with a weekly local 15-minute afternoon radio show, winds through his Sun Records career and ends with Cash’s own weekly one-hour show on network TV. Along the way, he slowly transforms from the raw, unbridled singer on Memphis’ Sun Records to a more polished and confident performer on Nashville’s Columbia Records.
Historical references abound here. A commercial on Memphis radio station KWEM in 1955 heralds an upcoming country jamboree at the city’s Overton Park Shell. Less than a year earlier, Overton Park had been the site of Elvis Presley’s breakthrough performance, the first where his astounding impact on live audiences was evident. In 1955, though, Elvis was billed below the show’s headliner, Webb Pierce. Cash was fifth on the bill, just below rockabilly singer Bud Deckelman.
The short Saturday afternoon radio show from KWEM on May 21, 1955, is a classic of the genre. It opens with the local temperature (75 degrees), an eager commercial for a three-day Memphis showing of the movie Apache with Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters and the announcer stumbling over words as he introduces Cash and the Tennessee Two.
Luther Perkins’ guitar sounds over-eager as he races through the show’s theme, and Cash sounds nervous and a bit hesitant throughout. He’s not overly convincing in a commercial he reads for the sponsor — Home Equipment Company — where he still has his day job. In trying to extol the wonders of “Cool Glow Awnings,” he solemnly announces that “aluminum will never rust.” In one song, “One More Ride” (a Sons of the Pioneers song), he sounds astonishingly like Hank Snow.
There’s also a prescient foretaste of the more confident and prophet-like Johnny Cash of the future here when they perform “Belshazzar,” which he introduces as a sacred song he wrote and hopes the audience will like. You are hearing Johnny Cash, the man, starting to become the singer that he will be.
After the KWEM radio show comes a wave of early demos and Sun Records rarities, including an early recording of “Big River” and versions of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman Blues” and Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
Eleven mid-1950s Sun demos here have never been released, including early versions of “I Walk the Line,” “Get Rhythm” and “Rock and Roll Ruby.”
The second CD gives itself over to a raft of Columbia Recordings from the 1960s, including singles not released on albums, B-sides of singles and outtakes. You’ll find a duet with Bonanza’s Lorne Greene on “Shifting, Whispering Sands.” Cash’s version of the song “Six White Horses” (which Cash’s brother Tommy later made into a hit) has never been released. Nor has the full version of “Come Along and Ride this Train,” complete with a stop and start midway through.
A real plus here is the song “Five Minutes to Live,” the theme song from the movie of the same name. Released in 1961, the movie starred Cash as Johnny Cabot, a “hard-up hood” who is part of a botched bank robbery and hostage plan. The flick was re-released in 1962 as Door-to-Door Maniac since Cabot’s so-called cover in the movie was as a door-to-door guitar instructor. … Well, the world was a very different place then. Cash didn’t actively seek any more such roles.
Frankly, I am a bit perplexed by the title From Memphis to Hollywood. I realize Cash did move to Southern California in 1958 after signing with Columbia, when he was still married to Vivien Liberto. They bought a large house from Johnny Carson in Encino. They later bought and moved to a big ranch near Casitas Springs. Cash ended up doing quite a bit of movie and TV music, and he had acting roles throughout much of the rest of his career. But after Vivien divorced him in 1966, he settled in Nashville and built his famous house on Old Hickory Lake. He married June Carter in 1968, and they lived out the rest of their lives in that house. So he remains identified with Nashville as his chosen home.
And it’s significant that this CD set ends in 1969 with “Come Along and Ride This Train,” which was the theme song for the TV program that Cash began that year and that he remains known for — The Johnny Cash Show on ABC. The show, thankfully, possessed absolutely no Hollywood qualities. It was on national network TV, but it was always taped in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. So he was pretty well rooted in Nashville in 1969.
Perhaps this is titled From Memphis to Hollywood because From Memphis to Nashville via Encino and Casitas Springs and Hollywood doesn’t sound quite as sexy.
That being said, this is a very worthwhile and welcome addition to the Cash canon of music. And, it’s not just history. It’s good, meat-and-potatoes, lasting music you can enjoy forever.