Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music Library: Johnny Cash

I'm not even going to pretend that this is a comprehensive look at Cash's 50-year career.  There's just too much to it.  But this is what I have.

The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), Columbia Records 1958-1986, and The Legend Lives On (released 2006).  The former is a three-disc set covering most of his biggest and best tracks from the first 30 years of his career.  Does it get better than this? No, it does not. All of these tracks need to be heard by music fans.  Columbia Records is a one-disc best-of that I've had forever and most everything appears on the Essential box.  But there's two tracks that aren't on the bigger collection, so there's that.  If you only have one disc for Mr. Cash's career, it should be this one.  The Legend Lives On is a cheapo with live performances of his biggest hits.  I got this as a burn from a friend, so I don't have any context for when or where the tracks were recorded, but they sound like they're from the 60s.

Orange Blossom Special (1965).  I don't have too many of Cash's actual albums, but I sure like the ones I have.  This one features not just his version of the title cut, but three freakin' Dylan songs ("It Ain't Me, Babe," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and "Mama, You've Been On My Mind"), plus the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower," a fantastic take on "Long Black Veil," and Harlan Howard's "The Wall."  Damn, it's good.

Everybody Loves A Nut (1966). From the Jack Davis-drawn Mad Magazine-esque cover, you can tell that Cash is in a goofy mood.  This one's heavy on Jack Clement's silliest songs: the title cut, "The One On The Right Is On The Left," "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog."  Plus Shel Silverstein's "Boa Constrictor," which I think is the national anthem of camp songs.  Cash's own "The Bug That Tried To Crawl Around The World" is no slouch in the fun department, either. Despite - or maybe because of - the silliness, this is a fantastic album.

At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quinten (The Complete Concert) (1969). "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Do you really need to hear how great these albums are again?  They're sublime.  You should own them if you don't.  You should hear them if you haven't.  Cash is more legend than man here.

America: A 200-Year Salute In Story and Song (1972). Cash attempts to retell the entirety of American history in a 40-minute album.  As Allmusic says, it's an entertaining, if kitschy, novelty.  But nothing that I want to listen to frequently.

Classic Christmas (1980) and Country Christmas (1991). I reviewed these last month with the Christmas music, but the upshot is don't bother.  They stink it up.

American Recordings (1994), Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000), American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), and American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways (2006).  Cash's fertile late period has been covered to death.  I don't have much to add.    The first three are definitely the best.  The first two songs on the fourth one are pretty stunning, but the rest of the album is too maudlin by half.  The fifth one, a posthumous release, has the man in a voice so frail that it hurts to listen to.  There's a 6th one due to drop in a few weeks, but I don't think I'll pick it up.  I do hope to get the Unearthed box sometime, though.


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