Johnny Cash

Cash and Carry

Cashing in on country legend Johnny Cash

By Greg Cahill

Are you ready for the Johnny Cash juggernaut? The Nov. 18 release of the Hollywood biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as wife June Carter Cash, explores Cash’s rollicking tale of drug addiction and redemption. It’s already fueling a runaway truckload of interest in the late country singer.

And the recording industry is ready.

Thirty-four new reissues and compilations, focusing on every aspect of Cash’s 50-year stage and studio career, have either hit the shelves in the past couple of months or are scheduled for release in the coming weeks.

The Complete Sun Recordings, 1955–1958? Rockabilly fans rejoice; Time-Life will have it in stores on Nov. 8. Cash crooning to the inmates of Folsom Prison and San Quentin? Sony/Legacy just reissued 58 tracks of prison performances in a three-CD box set. Cash for the kids? Check out the country-music children’s album The Good, the Bad, and the Two Cookie Kid. Johnny Cash Reads the Complete New Testament? Thomas Nelson Publishers shipped this spoken-word treasure just this week.

Say amen.

While the upcoming film soundtrack should quench the thirst of casual Cash fans, there are a couple of recent compilations aimed at the hearts of more hardcore country-music buffs.

Cash: The Legend (Sony/Legacy) is a hardbound portfolio that gathers 104 tracks, including four previously unreleased songs, on four CDs with a booklet that includes authoritative essays and lots of personal photos. In many ways, this new box set rehashes material from 1993’s four-CD anthology The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955–1983 (Columbia Legacy). It features all the early hits, from the 1956 Sun label breakthrough hit “I Walk the Line” to 1963’s “Ring of Fire” (penned by June Carter) to the unexpected 1969 pop hit “A Boy Named Sue.”

The 1993 box set cashed in on Cash’s termination of his longtime contract with Columbia Records to sign with the Mercury label; Cash later referred to that period as his “mental divorce” from Columbia. But Cash: The Legend gathers material from the Sun, Columbia, Mercury, Island and Sugar Hill labels. The real gem here is disc four, which includes the singer’s collaborations with Ray Charles, former son-in-law Rodney Crowell, Bob Dylan, U2 and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Released in tandem with Cash: The Legend is an eye-opening two-CD anthology Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash–Her Life in Music (Columbia/Legacy) that is essential stuff for any self-respecting Americana fan. Check out “Oh! Susannah,” performed by a precocious 10-year-old June Carter, or the then-20-year-old’s sassy rockabilly rendition of “Root, Hog or Die,” recorded in 1949 by the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle with guitarist Chet Atkins. There’s also Carter’s decidedly unsexy spin on the usually sultry “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” recorded that same year with country and bluegrass duo Homer and Jethro.

Keep on the Sunny Side offers unapologetically honest music from a self-described plain old country girl who won the heart of one of country music’s rowdiest souls; it’s a collection that in many ways overshadows Cash: The Legend.

Meanwhile, if you want a taste of Cash’s classic tracks coupled with the naked solo acoustic performances he recorded at the sunset of his career in the living room of renegade producer Rick Rubin, check out The Legend of Johnny Cash (Hip-O). This newly released 21-track CD ranges from the Sun-era song “Cry, Cry, Cry!” to Cash’s gripping version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” a Rubin-produced track first released on 2002’s critically acclaimed American IV: The Man Comes Around.

For a guy who grew up flat broke, Cash has left behind a legacy that has generated a cottage industry reaching a level on a par with former Sun label mate Elvis Presley.

From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.