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REVIEW: Johnny Cash is indeed The Legend (4 CD box set)

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How do you even start to make sense of Johnny Cash? He made a LOT of records over 40 years, covering a lot territory.

One argument against this collection would be redundancy. Besides everything else, this makes somewhere north of a dozen Johnny Cash box sets. There are few recording artists more deserving of multiple box set treatments, but all the repackaging over the years means that most people have most of the more important material.

On the other hand, this box might be the best place to start if you don’t own any Johnny Cash records. [What are you non-Johnny owning people anyway, commies?] These four CDs certainly have all the hits. It does not include any of the American Recordings material, but the other 90% of his career is well represented. It’s got the Sun records where he made his name, and the decades of Columbia recordings.

As many great records as he made over so many years, it seems like there must be stuff missing- but danged if I can think what it would be. I don’t particularly have any big new insights to share about his best known hits, but “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” and the “Folsom Prison Blues” etc are all here.

I was particularly glad to see the 1964 hit “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which for some reason gets left off a lot of compilations, despite being a top ten country hit. It tells the story of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima in the famous photo, who died drunk in a ditch in 1955. Somedays this is my favorite Johnny Cash song. He really gets his Old Testament mojo working. It comes out sounding like Ira’s death was God’s punishment for selling out to the white man. Them Carter women do some ghostly stuff with the vocal harmonies.

Despite being a big hit, a lot of country radio stations banned the song. In fairness, this DOES seem like an awfully harsh, even “anti-American” sentiment for commercial country radio, or it would seem like such coming from anyone but Cash. This resulted in a classic Cash gesture. Johnny took out a full-page ad in Billboard that read, “‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester-Harlem-Birmingham and Vietnam. Where’s your guts?”

Most days, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” rates as my favorite Johnny Cash song. This may be the most eloquent song about a hangover ever. That Kris Kristofferson sure could write. The pure beauty of the strings and horns illustrating the happy family scenes that he’s not part of only make his alienation hurt worse.

My top pick of anything new to me from this collection was another hangover song, though of a much more comic variety. The 1987 recording of Elvis Costello’s modern classic “The Big Light” was just the thing for Johnny. It was more or less a rockabilly song when Elvis published it the year before on King of America, so it was quite simple to translate into his classic clip-clopping Sun sound. For someone who perhaps trended a bit too much to the somber sometimes, this self-lacerating country wit was just right. Being Johnny Cash, he could get a kind of effect from this that Elvis would never be able to touch. Again, them Carter women chirping cheerfully about “in-spi-ra-tion” really delights.

This collection co-incidentally underscores the contributions of Carter women to his work. Not just June, but the Carter female vocal harmonies really help make his work come alive.

The four CDs are labeled as “Win, Place and Show – The Hits” “Old Favorites and New” “The Great American Songbook” and finally “Family and Friends.” In practice, these don’t seem like particularly useful or illuminating categorizations. There is no major distinction between the sounds of the “favorites” versus the “Great American Songbook” or the “hits.”

Plus, one can also get a bit overawed by the legend. You get to thinking that he was the definitive voice for any song he ever sang. Plus, I think he used to walk on water and stuff like that.

In truth though, some of Great American songbook stuff isn’t particularly essential. He performs everything competently, but there’s nothing especially revealing or deeply moving about him singing “Sweet Betsy from Pike” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

So a few of the 104 songs are useful in reminding us that JR Cash was only human. All of the recordings are perfectly presentable, but not all particularly inspired. It surprises me how average his 1964 recording here of “The Long Black Veil” came out. It seems like a custom made man-in-black kind of song, but this ain’t the tenth part as good as the definitive version from The Band.

Johnny Cash made for an interesting political figure. He seemed to be a bit political, or at least highly socially relevant with his prison songs, yet somewhat ambiguous. For being the “man in black” he wasn’t making much of a political statement. The lyrics of the song are really more a protest against the human condition than against any particular human malfeasance.

He had opinions, but seemed blessedly reticent about pontificating in public. There’s a jaunty song here from 1965, new to me, about a folk group destroying a perfectly good, happy career by getting into politics, “The One on the Right Is On the Left.” On the other hand, this didn’t stop him from having Pete Seeger and Joan Baez on his short lived network series.

Still though, other than eventually expressing some opposition to Vietnam, I don’t know whether he was liberal or conservative or what. Nor, for that matter, do I care.

I care much more about his romance with June, because it resulted in some of his best music. Appreciate the simple one two punch of their courtship anthem, “Jackson” from 1967. They were indeed hotter than pepper sprouts when they married in 1968, before the beautiful, profound and somber public marriage ceremony that was their 1969 recording of “If I Were a Carpenter.”

On the other hand, I wonder how many songs Cash sang about killing his woman. There are at least three on this collection. “Delia’s Gone” was his most famous such song, but there’s also “Goodnight Irene.” On top of which, he has the fairly comic 1972 recording of Marty Robbins’ “Kate” in which he’s on death row bitching to his wife’s ghost that it was her fault for making him kill her. It would sound good on a mix disc next to Guns ‘n Roses singing “I Used to Love Her.”

It ends up on all his compilations now, but his 1983 recording of Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” still rates special mention, totally selling a song that hadn’t particularly impressed me as sung by the author.

His religious material tends to get short shrift from secular rock fans and writer types in his audience, but he was particularly good with expressions of the passion of Christ. This 1962 recording of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” rates as one of Johnny’s best recordings. He’s got Mother Maybelle and sisters about. Anita’s forlorn cries of “sometimes it makes me tremble” really take me back to church.

Johnny’s such a Biblical character to start with. This collection doesn’t really quite do justice to his religious material. For one thing, you really should her him sing about the “Old Rugged Cross.”

This set also does not have anything from American. However, it does have an alternate 1961 take of his original recording of “Delia’s Gone.” This less famous recording of the song is fascinating to listen to side by side with his 1994 recording. He seems to have re-written some of the lyrics, but the intent and the arrangement aren’t that different. Further, the 1961 recording was quite good. Yet the 1994 version has so much more emotional throw weight as to make you throw rocks at this youthful recording.

Starting from scratch, if you got this collection and something from American, you’d be pretty well set for Cash. The Unearthed box set from American is great, but you’d do pretty well with even just the first American Recordings album.

But even if you’ve got a basic hits album, this would be really sweet for the other 3/4 of the album besides the obvious hits. Unless you have a bunch of Johnny Cash records, you’re definitely needing to hear this stuff.

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