Periodically record labels will throw together greatest hits packages culled from the back catalogues of their biggest stars. Now, a great deal of the time one is tempted to dismiss this type of thing as the cynical manoeuvring typical of the industry as they attempt to sell consumers the same product for a second time by merely putting it in a fresh wrapper. However, once in a while they do come up with a fresh idea and deliver something worthwhile.
One such series that has all the appearances of being a good idea is the new Legacy Recordings Setlist collection. While they’ve still gone into their back catalogues for some of the material, some of the discs promise previously unreleased material, and all them promise an interesting collection of live performances.
If their intent with the series was to choose material that gave listeners a good general overview of a performer’s range, then judging by the package they’ve put together for Johnny Cash, Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live they’ve done a remarkable job. For not only have they taken tracks from live performances Cash gave at various times and locations during his long and storied career, they’ve chosen songs that reflect the wide variety of styles and genres Cash played. Of course there are a number of songs from his recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, two of his most famous live recordings, but did you know he had also made a live recording in a prison in Sweden? I sure didn’t know that, but there are two tracks on here from a recording made at Osteraker Prison in October 1972. Hearing that familiar Cash voice speaking Swedish as he introduces “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine” to his audience is almost worth the cost of the disc alone.
To be honest, types of songs like the one above — sentimental country music — are the ones I like the least among Cash’s repertoire. However, stuff like “I Still Miss Someone,” “I Got A Woman,” and the medley of “Darlin’ Companion/If I Were A Carpenter/Jackson” (from live shows at Madison Square Garden, Folsom Prison, and Ryman Auditorium respectively) were, and still are, favourites for many. Omitting them would have given a false impression of his career and the music he played. I’m sure there are songs on this disc I like that others won’t appreciate, but that’s part of what made Cash so special, his ability to appeal to so many different people. How many other performers do you know who have had tribute albums created for them by everybody from gospel groups to punk bands? Not many, I’d bet.
Fittingly this collection begins and ends with tracks taken from recordings he made in prisons. Back in 1968 when Cash recorded Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison it was a risky thing to do as far as his career was concerned. Those were the days when prisons were places they sent people to forget about them, the idea of rehabilitation was even more of a joke than it is today, and playing for the inmates, aside from Salvation Army bands looking for converts on a Sunday, was unheard of, especially by pop stars of Cash’s status. However, as he explains in “Man In Black,” track three on this disc taken from a live recording made in 1971, Cash made a point of speaking for those who didn’t have a voice. For all their supposed subversiveness and rebellious nature, there were very few rock and roll stars in the late 1960s who were prepared to climb out of their Rolls Royce and play for inmates. Cash not only talked about having a social conscience and caring, he walked the walk, and you can see proof of that in the number of concerts he gave in prisons, and not just in the US.
If there was any more proof required of just how much Cash was willing to risk to put his point across one only has to look at where and when track eight, “What Is Truth,” was recorded. In 1970 Richard Nixon had been president for two years, was well on his way to escalating the war in Vietnam, and one year away from ordering the National Guard to open fire on university students at Ohio’s Kent State University. The Republican establishment was not the place you were liable to find a sympathetic audience for a song about young people being justified in speaking out against being killed fighting wars overseas or that said they were a voice of truth. However that’s exactly what Cash did when he sang that song at Nixon’s White House in 1970. I have to wonder at the applause you hear when he finishes. I can just see Tricky Dick grimacing in the front row trying not to order the Secret Service to gun Cash down.
No Cash collection would be complete without some gospel tunes, and thosee included on this collection come one right after the other: “Belshazzar” which was recorded at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1969 and “Children Go Where I Send Thee” recorded in Denmark in 1971. The first is a real fire and brimstone number with deep roots in the Old Testament while the latter is an old spiritual of a much more joyful nature. The thing about Cash is that you never doubted his sincerity when he sang gospel, as he not only obviously believed in what he was singing about, but tried to live his life according to those beliefs. All you have to do is hearken back to his declaration of intent in “Man In Black” and his performances in prisons if you require proof.
While some might be disappointed that “Ring Of Fire” didn’t make it onto this collection, the last four songs on the disc should make up for its omission. “Wreck Of The Old 97,” “I Walk The Line,” and “Big River” from the recording at San Quentin Prison, and “A Boy Named Sue” from the Swedish prison recording round it out nicely. As with any live concert a performer can’t play everybody’s favourites, but Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live does a fine job of picking songs that reflect the many sides of Cash’s musical personality. For those looking for either an introduction to, or a reminder of, Cash’s great talent, you can’t go wrong with this disc.