NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash Returns

New 63-CD Boxed Set Brings Back All of his Columbia Recordings

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

When Johnny Cash was recording and releasing his remarkable American Recordings albums on a fairly regular basis, I came to look forward to that new music. Now that he’s gone, that feeling of anticipation is also gone. Unlike many musical artists, Cash has never lost his hold on the imagination of listeners worldwide. Few singer-songwriters in country and popular music have had the lasting impact of the Man in Black.

And now Cash fans have something to look forward to. It’s not cheap, but I can’t think of a better birthday or Christmas present for a true Johnny Cash aficionado than this set. Its title is The Complete Columbia Album Collection. In October, Sony and Columbia Legacy will release the huge boxed set of all of his albums from the Columbia Records label, his musical home from 1958 to 1986 when he was unceremoniously dumped from his contract because he was no longer cranking out hit songs.

How many artists are worthy of and still commercially viable enough to support a 63-CD boxed set?

The retail price for the set is $329.99, with some online sites offering advance orders for about $265. The official release date is Oct. 30. It includes 59 albums and two bonus compilations, all on 63 CDs. Many of the albums have never been released on CD. Just reading some of the album titles evoke fond memories: Blood, Sweat and Tears, Man in Black, Ragged Old Flag, I Walk the Line, Johnny 99, and Ride This Train. There are eight live albums, including the iconic Folsom Prison and San Quentin sessions, and live recordings made in Sweden, England and Czechoslovakia.

As you probably know, Cash was first signed to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis in 1955. His first Sun recordings were all singles (although some packagers have since bundled them as albums). Such songs as “Hey Porter” sounded basic and almost primitive, but were also aimed squarely at the basic country music audience that identified closely with his basic sound and his messages of home, family, faith, hard times and good times. A simpler life.

You know, you just have to shake your head in wonderment to realize that the United States of America once managed to land the first man on the moon, but today churns out the likes of the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo TV show and, as a nation, publicly worries about who will be the next American Idol judge. As if the pioneering moon-walking astronaut Neil Armstrong should not have been a real life American idol. And then the NBC-TV network dumped fresh garbage on American history by recently misidentifying astronaut Neil Armstrong as the music artist Neil Young. Just another name in the confused celebrity file of the celebrity media daze.

Back to Johnny Cash history: The then little-celebrated Johnny Cash was lured away from Memphis and Sun Records to Nashville and the then-stellar Columbia Records label in 1958 and launched his career there with the single “What Do I Care.” Singles ruled country music then and Cash’s first Columbia single charted at No. 7 on the Billboard country singles chart. His second release, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” became his first No. 1 hit.

Now, all that’s left for Cash music lovers is to await future boxed sets of all of his Sun recordings, his Mercury recordings and his American Recordings work. Giants once walked the earth. Johnny Cash was one of them.