Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nurse the Hate: The Johnny Cash Complete Columbia Collection Review

Well, I did it.  I listened to the entire Johnny Cash Columbia Records catalogue.  I listened to all 63 discs in order.  Every song.  Every album.  All the way through.  I have now listened to more Johnny Cash than even June Carter Cash did. Oddly enough, even after finishing being "forced" to listen to nothing but Cash for the last seven weeks, I am typing this listening to "Man In Black".  You would think that I would never want to hear Johnny Cash again, but instead I find myself having gone from appreciating Johnny Cash to being in complete awe of his accomplishments.  It wasn't always easy.  There were some very dark moments as I weeded my way through the 1980s catalogue.   The gospel records were not my cup of tea.  Every other record has a version of "I Still Miss Someone".  Still, we are talking about 63 full length records over 30 something years.  You're going to hit a few bumps over the years.

I think the most impressive thing about this collection of work is the amazing level of quality that runs through it.  Even records that are horribly flawed always have a song or two that you will want to hear again.  There are very few performances that sound mailed in.  He is always good.  Even when Nashville was searching for some magic to get Cash back in the charts in the late seventies/early eighties and had "contemporary" sounding bands behind him, Cash is still really good.  He had an amazing ear for good material, and there aren't too many songs he recorded where you think, "What the fuck was that?".  His writing was consistently solid and often just plain great.  Frankly, he casts as large a shadow on the American music landscape as Bob Dylan.  He is country/folk/rockabilly all at the same time.  No one else sounds like him or stands as confidently across genres.  He is essentially a genre onto himself.

One of the tried and true ways of getting cheap applause if you are a band like us is to mention Johnny Cash.  Literally, everyone thinks Johnny Cash is cool.  However, I have a sneaking suspicion that most people we come in contact with that profess to love Johnny Cash might only be familiar with "Folsom Prison Blues", "Ring of Fire", the "Hurt" video and that cool picture of him flipping off the camera.  You have to get in the game.  There are a staggering array of greatest hits packages out there, most of which take his best Sun stuff and early Sixties stuff.  Those are a great place to start.  At some point you will have to get serious though.  This catalogue of music is required listening for anyone with even a slight interest in American roots music.  I just did the hard work for you and listened to the whole damn thing.  Let me help you out.  If I were you, I would first focus in on these five records as essential parts of your musical education.  Then, depending on your favorite era, you can dig in from there.

1)  Live at Folsom Prison (1968)-  This is the whole enchilada.  It's great material captured in an amazing performance.  You can feel the give and take between audience and performers.  It's as good as music gets really.  Every single person in America should have a copy of this.

2)  Hello, I'm Johnny Cash (1969)-  A great combination of originals and well selected covers, I love the confidence of this record.  You can almost see the smiles on all the musician's faces as they must have been thinking, "Holy shit is this coming out great!".  After messing around with bigger bands, he stripped everything back to the core of his voice and small band.  This was a wise move.

3)  Johnny Cash with his Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)-  This is the ultimate collection of his Sun Records material.  It's incredible to think that this guy showed up as a kid basically and cranked out songs like "I Walk The Line", "Cry Cry Cry", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Hey Porter", "Get Rhythm", "Big River" and "Home of the Blues" as his first recordings.  Almost any recording artist would give their left testicle for even one of those songs.  This was just the start of his recording career.  Damn.

4)  Sings The Ballad of the True West (1966)- Cash recorded a bunch of concept records in the 60s that are all pretty good.  This was a double album and it's got some really great material.  This is available as two versions.  One is called "Mean As Hell" and came out as a single record after Columbia had trouble selling the double LP "True West" version.  Don't be cheap.  Get the double album.  It's worth it.

5)  One Piece At A Time (1976)-  Just when you thought you could count Cash out, he comes back with seven originals and well selected covers like "One Piece At A Time".  I love "Committed to Parkview" on this.  Killer.  His career has plenty of records like this.  I would listen to three in a row that were OK, and then suddenly you remember why you liked this guy so much in the first place.

Records I could have just as easily thrown into this list include "The Fabulous Johnny Cash", "The Sound of Johnny Cash", "Everybody Loves A Nut", "Happiness Is You", "At San Quentin", "Man in Black", and "At Madison Square Garden".  It's really just a matter of preference.  There is so much good stuff it is overwhelming.

For convenience sake, here's the complete overview.

Disc 1:  "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" has the #1 hit "Don't Take Your Guns To Town", as well as "Frankie's Man Johnny", "I Still Miss Someone", and "Pickin Time".  It also has a lot of those songs that sound dated and annoying with those backup singers hitting all that call and response stuff.  If this came out today, we'd all be crying out "Johnny Cash is a sellout man!".  "The Troubadour" is especially brutal.  Disc 2:  "Hymns By Johnny Cash" must be the album they let Johnny record to get him signed to Columbia.  Johnny loved his spirituals, but even he knew this must be commercial suicide.  "It Was Jesus" would have been an awesome Uncle Scratch cover.  Boy, do I miss Brother Ed...  This has "The Old Account" on it, which is as close to a hit as there is on it.  Disc 3:   "Songs Of Our Soil" has a bunch of workin' man songs on it including the hit "Five Feet High and Rising".  I really dig a lonesome seafarer song called "I Want To Go Home" I've never heard before, and "Clementine" would be good if the arrangement was completely different.  Who the hell talked him into letting those syrupy backup singers hit that chorus? Disc 4:  "Now There Was A Song"  This is an all country covers album which I think is the first time Johnny gets down home with fiddles.  Of note is "Transfusion Blues", an early "non-offensive" version of "Cocaine Blues".  His versions of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Honky Tonk Girl" are pretty great.  This is a good album all things considered.  Somebody at Columbia must have decided to go for "the hillbilly market" with this.  I can see some guy with a flat top haircut chomping on a cigar saying, "Have him cut some of those goddamn hillbilly songs!  We'll move some fucking units down South at least!  Now where are we on that Miles Davis record?  Is he off the junk yet?"  Disc 5: "Ride This Train"  This is the first Johnny Cash concept record where he is doing American songs set as a travelogue where he is allegedly on a train that can travel not just across distance but also time.  In between every song is the exact same train sound effect and then Cash tells a story for about a minute and a half in character before each song.  It would have been nice to have the stories as separate tracks as I don't know if I might sprain my wrist hitting the fast forward button to avoid listening to the spoken word portions of each tune.  The songs are pretty good and sparse, just how I like Cash in this period.  "Loading Coal" is a good song, and "Going To Memphis" is interesting too except it sounds like one of the Tennessee Two is in blackface doing the chain gang chorus part.  It's pretty embarrassing.  Times have changed since this came out in 1960.  I also don't think Columbia Records would have released the song "Boss Jack" where Cash's character speaks to a slave he is going to punish because he was late coming back to the barn.  Disc 6:  "Hymns From The Heart" was tough going.  Everything I hate about those thick "ohhhhh" and "ahhhh" dated choruses gets applied to traditional hymns.  The original sleeve notes state "You will return to them often for inspiration and delight.".  I am not so sure about that.  This is what church in some shitty town down South must've sounded like if Johnny Cash was in the chorus.  Even then it's brutal.  Can you imagine sitting in a service in 1961 in Arkansas with whatever non-talented inbreds were singing these songs?  Bad haircuts, horrible church outfits, judgemental sermons, and then these songs?  Find me a Scientology center!  Snake handling?  OK.  I'm in! Just stop singing...  Disc 7: "The Sound of Johnny Cash" is really great.  "Lost On The Desert" is a killer Marty Robbins sounding cut.  He's got some great broken hearted lover songs with "Accidentally On Purpose", "Mr. Lonesome", "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know", "Let Me Down Easy", and "You Won't Have Far To Go".  He nails a couple standards with "In The Jailhouse Now" and "Cotton Fields".  This also has the originals "Delia's Gone" and "Sing It Pretty Sue".  It's more sparse, starting to retreat from that soft 50s production and relies mainly on the power of Cash's "voice of God".  This is his first great album for Columbia, and the first time he has the Man In Black look on the cover.  You need this.  Disc 8:  "Blood, Sweat, And Tears" is a collection of working songs, many of them real war horses like "Nine Pound Hammer", "John Henry", "Another Man Done Gone", and "Casey Jones".  The hit on this one is "Busted", where they use an autoharp in the response to the chorus instead of the doo-wop singers.  His one original is a bluesy thing called "Tell Him I'm Gone" which would be a great rockabilly cover.  This one feels like it was thrown together when they realized "Hey!  We have a whole bunch of working man/chain gang songs here.  What if we record Nine Pound Hammer and put out a full length!"  Disc 9:  "Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash" is by no means a greatest hits package.  "Ring of Fire" came out as a single in 1963, went to #1 across the country and pop charts and this was the album they rushed out.  There's some shitty over produced stuff on this like "Remember the Alamo", "Bonanza" with a vocal track, and "The Rebel-Johnny Yuma".  With some of these songs, you want to put on a coonskin hat and watch F-Troop in your pajamas.  It sounds really dated.  However, "Ring of Fire" is a monster, "I'd Still Be There", "What Do I Care" and "Tennessee Flat Top Box" are essential.  "I Still Miss Someone" makes yet another appearance, probably the song most likely to be on a Johnny Cash comp after "Folsom".  I think this would be worth owning on vinyl, just for the groovy cover.  (See below)  Also, please note that he is wearing the exact same shirt as the previous album, not that they rushed this out or anything...   Disc 13:  Bitter Tears-  This is another concept record where Johnny takes on the plight of the American Indian.  As it was 1964, country music and country music radio wasn’t really interested in hearing about the plight of the American Indian. Johnny had to take out ads in trade publications daring them to play the record, which they begrudgingly did.  The problem is the record is real drag.  “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is pretty good, and I also dig “Custer” and “White Girl”.  Still, it's hard to get fired up hearing about how shitty The White Man has done the Indian.  Look, I'm here in a subdivision in the Cleveland area.  What am I gonna do about it?  Quit busting my chops Johnny...  Disc 14:  “Orange Blossom Special”is a good one.  Johnny fires the first shot in the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan mutual admiration society with covers of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been On My Mind”, and “”Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”.  This has some great stuff.  “The Long Black Veil”, “The Wall”, and “Orange Blossom Special” all became Cash concert staples. Highly recommended.  You should know these songs unless you have no taste in music whatsoever.  Disc 15:  Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads of the Old West is a double album.  It’s mostly cowboy and pioneer songs, which he does really well.  There’s more of that spoken word stuff, which makes it feel like a Disney Hall of Presidents ride at times.  Some of it has way too much production, with string sections and those fucking backup vocals drenched over everything. Still, “Hardin Wouldn’t Run”, “Mean As Hell”, “25 minutes To Go”, and “Green Grow The Lilacs” are pretty great.  I dare you to get through “The Shifting Whispering Sands” Part 1 and 2 more than once.  You can see why Columbia released a one LP version of this called “Mean As Hell” that somehow omits “Green Grow The Lilacs”.  They probably sold a lot more of those at Stucky's than the more expensive double LP version.  Disc 16:  Everybody Loves A Nut is a collection of light hearted songs that is actually really well produced. These are a bunch of Jack Elliot, Jack Clement, and Shel Silverstein songs.  The good news is this is from 1966 and the Carter Family backups are under control.  “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” appears on Live at Folsom later.  A lot of these were new to me but fear not as for the most part these are pretty good songs done really well.  Maybe it is just because I was in good spirits when I listened to this, but I really like it.  We’ll find if it bears repeated listening.  Disc 17: Happiness Is You gets back to what Johnny does best, heartbreak songs.  I really like his two kiss-off songs “Ancient History” and the Gordon Lightfoot cover “For Loving Me”.  “She Came From The Mountains” is really sad.  In these songs, you don’t just lose the girl. You lose the girl forever and maybe she dies and you are left to live a hopeless life alone with only tortured memories.  Or maybe you die too.  There is no redemption.  If you want to be really bummed out after a bad breakup, you could make a Johnny Cash 20 cut CD that would leave you in tears by the end of it.  I’m serious.  You would vow off even speaking to the opposite sex ever again.  You have to be careful with these records.  They are powerful.  “Happy To Be With You” has this funky calliope organ that is a total departure in sound, but in my mind totally works.  This is clearly a stopgap record, but “Happy To Be With You” still went to #9 on the country chart.         Disc 18 Carrying On with Johnny Cash & June Carter is the kind of record I normally hate.  I like Johnny Cash when he sounds kind of scary and mean.  You toss in those happy June Carter vocals and it can start to feel like when Bruce Springsteen trots his wife out to play guitar with the E Street Band.  Well, if Springsteen’s wife was talented that is…  I was surprised by how much I liked this, and how really good it was.  I even added most of this to the old iPod.  “Jackson” is the big hit off this record, but “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin Man”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and “No, No, No” are pretty charming.  I like the groovy electric guitar line on “Fast Boat To Sydney”.  Beware, the cover of “What I’d Say” is maybe one of Cash’s most misguided moments in the 1960s.   Disc 19:  From Sea To Shining Sea is another of Johnny's travelogue records, but this time he stays current.  I had read that his contract called for a brutal four full length records a year, so it is sort of amazing that he came up with thematic ideas for these records instead of just putting one single on it and attached all horrible covers.  I mean, this could have been "Surfin' with Johnny Cash" or "Twistin' with Johnny Cash".  At least he does have ideas.  This one is all patriotism and re-doing folk songs into geographic specific songs.  You gotta have a couple good death songs, and this one has "The Walls of the Prison" (set to "The Streets of Laredo" melody) and "Call Daddy From the Mine".  Who doesn't love a good coal mine death song?  That always gets a party going!  The song "Shrimpin' Sailin" is a faux cajun song with a harmonica that is completely and utterly without soul.  When I heard the harmonica come in I thought about when I was in elementary school and this dorky teacher proved to be proficient at the harmonica, but played like Mr. Rogers.  I remember looking at him thinking how he thought he was Little Walter but we thought he was as white bread as possible.  And I was seven!  That memory sends a shiver down my spine even today...  Disc 20 Live At Folsom Prison is without question one of the most essential records in the American Music canon. If you are reading this, I find it hard to believe you don’t already own this.  If you don’t, mention that to no one and acquire a copy immediately.  This is everything that is great about Johnny Cash in one perfect package.  The songs, the delivery, and his interaction with the prisoners are better than anything you could imagine.  Essential.  Disc 21, The Holy Land.  This was a real chore to get through.  Johnny and June went on vacation to the Greater Nazareth Area and decided to take a tape recorder and describe their trip to you.  I shit you not.  Two thirds of this record must be Johnny talking about places Jesus allegedly was, as well as a crazy story about how he heard that when Jesus was crucified the blood ran down into the ground and Adam's skull came to life.  You hear wind blowing into the mic, people talking in the background, and they even let a tour guide talk for awhile.  It's hard to believe they charged money for this.  It's like you are sitting through a boring vacation slide show at Johnny Cash's house.  Can you imagine if you just got into Johnny Cash with the Live at Folsom record and then bought "his new one" when this came out?  "What the fuck is this?"    This record does have the #1 country single "Daddy Sang Bass"though.  I dare you to get through this.  No, I challenge you...   Disc 22 Live at San Quentin returns to the live prison record formula.   This is really great.  Not as great as Folsom, but still really great.  "A Boy Named Sue" is on this, as well as "Wanted Man".  I'm still not sure why we needed two takes of "San Quentin".  This is an awesome companion piece to Live at Folsom Prison.   Disc 23 Hello, I'm Johnny Cash is a return to the studio.  The recording starts to sound more modern here, and I'm not sure why.  There is more instrumentation, and maybe it's the first Bob Johnston produced studio record.  This is a good one with some Johnny original material mixed with some Kris Kristofferson songs.  "Southwind" is a good train song we should cover.  "If I Were A Carpenter" is pretty charming.   "See Ruby Fall" is nice with that saloon piano.   "Sing A Travelin' Song" is kind of a "Don't Think Twice" ripoff, but anytime Johnny sings "I'm mooooovin on" it's all good.  This is a winner.  Disc 24 The Johnny Cash Show is a live recording of him at the Opry where he has an orchestra, and a lot of spoken word.  It's sort of like that Ride This Train album live with more schmaltz.  The cover of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" is a keeper, but the rest sounds dated.  The sound quality kind of sucks too.  It's really tinny.  This must have been a contract obligation, because it sounds like they took a reference tape and mailed it to Columbia.  It would be a drag to go to a Johnny Cash show and hear him talking about Jesus and singing medleys.  You will note, Rick Rubin did not go in this direction when staging Johnny Cash's "comeback".   Disc 25 The Original Soundtrack to I Walk The Line has the #1 country single "Flesh and Blood"and I like "This Town".  As you would expect, there's plenty of filler here, but it seems like some sort of effort was made to produce some quality songs.  There are clearly some B-sides floating in on this.  I never saw this movie, but on the poster Gregory Peck is shaking the crap out of some actress that obviously wasn't "walking the line".  Disc 26 The Original Soundtrack to Little Fauss and Big Halsey is a clear cash grab.  There's instrumental versions of third rate songs, and even Carl Perkins gets to sing lead on one.  If these guys spent more than an afternoon on this I would be stunned.  I did add "Battle of Little Fauss and Big Halsey" onto my itunes because it was so bad it was kind of great.  It looks like the movie was about guys that raced motorcycles, and a young Robert Redford took his shirt off a lot.  I've seen a lot of shitty motorcycle movies, but I don't know this one.  I'm going to think of it as a bad "Dirty Mary & Crazy Larry" until I am proved otherwise.  I can't imagine anyone currently owns this record, and if they do I can't come up with a scenario in which they ever played it more than once.  Disc 27 Man In Black leads with a duet with Billy Graham.  This sounds like a bad idea because it is a bad idea.  It's a Johnny Cash song with dropped in Billy Graham spoken word.  Wrap your head around that for a second.  I have a vision of Columbia record executives meeting and plotting on how to get a bigger piece of the religious market.  "These Cash gospel records do OK, but dammit we need to move the needle.  Who do we got?  Can Billy Graham sing?  No?  Sonofabitch...  Well, what if we just drop a fuckin piece of a sermon in there and call it a duet?  He can sell it at his Crusades at twice retail.  We'll clean up!  Get his people on the phone!".  This record is from 1971 and you can hear the influence of folk rock on it as most of the songs are Cash singing over simple picking.  "Man In Black" and "Singing In Viet Nam Talkin Blues" are both great, and left the politicians no doubt that Cash was anti-war.  If you lose the country music audience in a war, it's time to get the troops out of there, no?  There is a certain charm to this release.   Disc 28 A Thing Called Love is a mixed bag.  "Kate" is one of those killer "you-been-a-bad-woman" Cash songs.  "Melva's Wine" is about as groovy a song as he has ever recorded.  I like "Tear Stained Letter" too.  There's some real shit on this as well.  "Daddy" is about a family driving around the country with their alcoholic father who is sure to turn it around this time because of Jesus.  Sing along!  "Arkansas Lovin Man" may have been written on the spot.  "The Miracle Man" is an awful Jesus song.  It seems like there is a real question of direction on this album.  Disc 29 America was a tough listen.  This goes back to the formula of Johnny having spoken word intros into quick 90 second songs.  All the songs are about American history, and it reminded me of sitting Indian style on my mat listening to my second grade teacher Mrs. Jewel put on the school board approved records onto the phonograph brought down by the AV kids.  This would be better than history class when you were nine years old.  This is not something an adult male will ever reach for putting into his disc player.  The Seventies were a strange time.  If you want to hear Johnny Cash read the Gettysburg Address, this is the record for you!  Proving that there is always something of interest on a Cash record, I did add "Big Foot".  Then again, who wouldn't?  Disc 30 The Johnny Cash Family Christmas is about as brutal a listening experience as one could put oneself in on a January evening.  I am sick of Christmas music anyway, but this takes it over the top.  Between all the songs are extended conversations via open mic with Johnny, his band, June, and whatever other hillbillies were in the studio talking about their Christmas memories.  You get to hear about how one guy got a hatchet for Christmas as if that were as normal a gift to give a six year old as a toy truck.  Then June gets brassy on her "Jingle Bells" verse with her throaty "Jaaaaaahhhhingle Bells!".  Lots of chucking at stories from people you don't know that aren't very funny to begin with in the first place.  I did it though.  I got through it.  I will look back on that as A Very Dark Time for me.  Disc 31 Any Old Wind That Blows has some of those awful elements from the early 1970s singer songwriter period with string sections, and limp songs.  "Oney" is an OK "working man" song.  There's a pretty groovy version of "If I Had A Hammer" that sounds like the Partridge Family might be playing backup.  The songs are weak on this, with "Kentucky Straight" and "Country Trash" some of the worst Cash originals out there.  Disc 32 and 33 is The Gospel Road.  This double album from the movie dedicated to Jesus life is a bigger version of The Holy Land and really tested my commitment to this harebrained idea.  If you ever wanted to go to Sunday School and have Johnny Cash as your teacher, let me direct you towards this.  How many times can you tell the same story like he is with these gospel records?  Somebody must have bought these, because Columbia kept putting them out.  My guess is that every single used copy of this floating around out there is in almost perfect condition because it would have only been played once.  It did go to #12 on the Country album chart, which is astounding.  Disc 34 Johnny Cash and His Woman has what may be the most annoying Cash single of all time "Allegheny".  June is making a wild shriek and throaty laugh through the whole thing.  It is absolutely cringe worthy.  "The City of New Orleans" is really good, as is the Cash original "Saturday Night In Hickman County".  Disc 35 Pa Osteraker is a really good live show from a Swedish prison.  There are plenty of new lonesome prisoner songs on it played with his core band.  "Orleans Parish Prison", "Jacob Green", "City Jail", and "Nobody Cared" are right in his wheelhouse.  If you dig the Folsom and San Quentin records, this will be a great addition.  This one is a hidden jewel in his catalogue.  Disc 36 Ragged Old Flag has some of the mid seventies concerns in the song topics; ecology, lost sense of patriotism, and a lost sense of purpose.  "Don't Go Near The Water" is a unique vibe amongst Cash songs.  "All I Do Is Drive" is a cool truck driving song.  "Please Don't Let Me Out" about an old prisoner.  These are all Cash originals, and while not his best work, it's good to see some focused songwriting back from Cash.  Disc 37 The Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me is a movie soundtrack that you really don't need.  The title track is OK, but there's shit like "Ole Slewfoot" and Rosanne Cash songs on this.  The best thing about this is how short it is.  Disc 38 The Johnny Cash Children's Album is a confusing mess.  Who the hell makes  a children's record where a guy shoots his dog?  ("Old Shep")  This is really a collection of simple adult songs with a couple kiddie tunes tacked on ("Dinosaur Song" and "The Timber Man").  This album pretty much blows except for "Nasty Dan". Disc 39 is Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories.  Why Johnny Cash decided to record an album in 1974 that sounded like it was produced by June and Ward Cleaver in 1959 I cannot say.  Think of the worst combination of early 1970s instrumentation with strings, female backup vocals, and horns mixed with cliche church songs that even bee-hived choir directors would dismiss as "Nah, let's not do that.  That's too sappy.".  This album is not for you.  Do not even stare at it with your naked eyes as you may become sucked into the void by staring at the grade school art contest artwork they used for the cover.  This is awful.  (see cover below) Disc 40 John R. Cash is some sort of attempt to make Johnny Cash sound current in 1974.  Please note, by the word "current" I mean that he sounds like he is backed up by England Dan and John Ford Coley.  (How about that for an oblique 70s music reference?)  If you wanted to know what Johnny Cash would sound like fronting Firefall, this record is for you.  It has the worst version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" I have ever heard.  The arrangement is so misguided, it is worth hearing once so you can sit open mouthed in amazement and say "Who thought of that?".  There is a pretty good version of David Allen Coe's "Cocaine Carolina" though.  Clip the single off of itunes.  Disc 41 Look At Them Beans is worth listening to so you can wonder how the truly awful song "Look At Them Beans" ever charted on the country charts.  Mainstream country music fans are not exactly the biggest bastions of substantial songwriting, so I guess they must have liked hearing Johnny Cash yelling out "Look At Them Beans!!!!".  This is another pretty bad album, although the cover is interesting to look at and wonder how it got approved by anyone with even a lick of sense.  Disc 42 Strawberry Cake is a live show in England that is probably pretty representative of his live show in the mid 70s.  Johnny does some old war horse songs, tells some stories, plays a few new ones, tells some more stories, has June sing one, and then drives off with a sack of money.  It's actually pretty good, but all the other live records are better.  "I Still Miss Someone" makes its 33rd appearance on a Johnny Cash record in case you don't have any of the other 32 versions.  Disc 43 One Piece At A Time is a pretty good one.  The production is much more of the traditional "Johnny Cash sound".  "One Piece At A Time" is an essential Cash single.  "Committed To Parkview" is a nice bleak song about rehab.  "Sold Out of Flagpoles" is a fun throwaway.  After what can only be called "A Dark Fucking Period", Cash is starting to deliver the goods again.  I messed up and listened to one out of order, so that puts us to Disc 45.  Disc 44 The Last Gunfighter Ballad has a few songs that feel like they were recorded for Frontier Town at Cedar Point Amusement Park.  I immediately thought about being in Levi's cutoffs and drinking a Frostee waiting in line for The Corkscrew.  This needed to be grittier.  I liked "The Last Gunfighter Ballad", and "Cindy, I Love You" on this.  This is OK, but it feels like he lost some momentum from the One Piece record.  Disc 45 The Rambler is an interesting idea of a radio play with a running story between songs that loosely fit into the narrative.  The basic idea is that Cash is a man that can't get a woman out of his mind, so he is going to ramble across the country until he either forgets her or meets another one.  Being in motion is better than being stuck with just himself and the thoughts that haunt him.  "Hit The Road and Go" is classic Cash.  So is "After the Ball".  "A Wednesday Car" is a good nod to the working man in the auto industry.  I don't know if you can listen to the sometimes clumsy dialogue over and over, but one time around was pretty interesting.  One thing you have to say about Cash.  After at this point 20+ years of recording, he is still pushing himself artistically and taking risks.  While not everything on this is a home run, I love that he went to the plate and took some big cuts.  Bravo. Disc 46 I Would Like To See You Again is when Cash gets categorized as working as part of the Outlaw Country movement, which is kind of ridiculous as he was never really country and always set his own artistic course anyway.  Still, because Waylon Jennings makes a couple of appearances, the Outlaw Country tag gets applied.  Whatever.  This record has some pretty good songs on it ("I Would Like To See You Again" and "Lately" in particular) but is still marred by that yacht rock late seventies production.  If you dig the way Christopher Cross records sound, this is right up your alley.  Disc 47 Gone Girl once again finds Nashville trying to make Cash sound "contemporary".  It seems so obvious now, but the move would have been to have Cash record songs he liked with his core band and been done with it.  There's an OK version of the Stones "No Expectations" on this, and he makes "The Gambler" sound much cooler than Kenneth Rogers did.  "It Comes And Goes" is a really nice heartbreak original.  If you want to hear Cash do cajun, "Cajun Born" is not as cringe worthy as the idea sounds.  Disc 48 Silver is a tough listen.  "I'll Say It's True" with George Jones is pretty good.  "I'm Gonna Sit On The Porch And Pick My Old Guitar" is a nice little original.  I really hate the production and the the over instrumentation on this record.  Late 70s Nashville is about as bad an aesthetic as you can imagine.  There was so much bad taste it must have been overwhelming.  You can almost smell the bad imitation leather shoes when you open this.  The same people that think home decorations available at Cracker Barrel are really nice have the same basic taste as the ones that arranged the songs on this record.  The worst version of "Cocaine Blues" conceivable is on this.  He got a #2 hit with a version of "Ghost Riders In The Sky" that is terrible too.  1979 was a tough time in music.  If you doubt that statement, listen to Silver and Disc 49 Rockabilly Blues.  You would think that a Johnny Cash record focused on rockabilly would be great.  It would be too if they actually recorded any rockabilly.  The limp dick versions of rockabilly on this record are embarrassing.  His version of "Without Love" is maybe the only keeper on this.  If he had recorded these same songs with the Stray Cats in 1980, this thing would have been killer.  Instead the 37 studio ringers that play as steady and sanitized as any studio stiff make this a boring paint by numbers record.  Disc 50 Classic Christmas is exactly what you need if what you need is Johnny Cash singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" along with an orchestra and chorus.  This isn't a real go-to record in February.  Maybe I will circle back around next Christmas.  I felt like kind of a jackass when I pulled through a toll booth and "O Come All Ye Faithful" was blasting in my car in mid February.  Disc 51 The Baron is Johnny's version of a Kenny Rogers record.  Maybe I'm crazy, but I really like this record.  It's pretty slick, but the songs and performances are so good it carries through.  "The Baron", "A Ceiling Four Walls and A Floor", "Hey Hey Train"and "Chattanooga City Limit Sign" are all pretty great.  "Thanks To You" is one of his traditional "you crushed my heart, but fuck you baby it turns out I'm Johnny Cash and you're not" songs.  In a bleak period of his recorded career, this is a real highlight.  Disc 52 The Survivors is from a live show in Stuttgart with Johnny on stage with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.  This again proves the theory that supergroups are rarely that super.  Each one of these guys is great on his own, but their individual performance styles are not very complimentary.  Don't get me wrong, it would have been awesome to have seen this show live.  I can see myself with a pils in my hand saying, "Look at that!  Look at those three guys.  Right there.  No way."  Then afterwards I would have told anyone who wasn't there how awesome it was since they weren't there.  After the record came out and it turned out that "Going Down The Road Feelin Bad" and maybe "I Saw The Light" were the only really good things on it, I would have blamed a bad recording.  I think this is like one of those pictures you take of a party.  While you remember the fun of party when you see the photo, everyone else just sees a picture of some people mugging for the camera holding beers.  You shoulda been there man!  Disc 53 The Adventures of Johnny Cash is worth noting that despite being maybe the greatest vocalist of the century, Cash's version of Shaver's "I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train" pales in comparison to the vocally challenged Billy Joe Shaver's own version(s).   This is horribly produced as a whole.  It sounds like Cash recorded the vocals months after the basic tracks.  It's like he is out of time on some of them, like the mix is off.  This must have been a record he had to do for contract fulfillment.  The songs aren't that good.  His performances sound tossed off.  Not his finest hour.  Disc 54 Johnny 99 is a disaster.  On the surface Cash recording a couple of Springsteen's songs from Nebraska sounds like a good start.  I will even give you that "Highway Patrolman" is OK.  However, this shows you in one document what was wrong with music in the 80s.  The sheer amount of synthetic sounds on this record and the over hatched layers of stiff tracks is unreal.  It's hard to believe that Cash sat at the control booth board and nodded his head as this came back at him during playback.  "Yep.  We nailed it here Brian."  This has the same feel as some of those terrible Dylan records from the period like "Saved" or "Empire Burlesque".  That mushy Sly and Robbie rhythm with drums that sound like bass notes is all over this.  It's really hard to explain why this happened.  What sort of mass delusion made all of us think that music should sound this way?  Why was it a good idea to try and use electronics to try and sound like drums and pianos when perfectly good drums and pianos could have just been miked?  With the exception of low budget punk records from that period, is there anything that sounds good from 1982? Disc 55 Koncert V Praze is a live show from Prague in 1978.  The interesting thing to me is that his current studio records are all with these bands trying to make him sound "modern".  Meanwhile as soon as he gets on stage, he gives the crowd what they want to hear with the classic "boom chicka boom" Johnny Cash sound.  Why wouldn't he have kept that in mind when going into the studio?  "Look you studio assholes.  I am out there 200 nights a year.  You think I don't know what these people want to hear?  Get the electronic drums and keyboards outta here.  You guys with the drums, bass, and guitar... you stay right where you are!".  This is OK, but I prefer some of the other live shows over this.  The Cowboy Medley is nice.  Disc 56 Rainbow is awful.  When you see the graphics package with Eighties neons and Miami Vice pastels, you know this could be a problem.  When you listen to it, you go "Ye Gods!".  If you wanted to know what Johnny Cash sounds like if Night Ranger backed him up, this is the record for you.  This is worth seeking out just to hear the worst version of CCR's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" ever.  Disc 57 Highwayman is the "supergroup" of Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. This has aged very badly.  The performances are all really good but the electronic sounds and shrill production are things I can't get past.  There's a nice version of "Committed To Parkview" on this.  Disc 58 Heroes is a Johnny Cash/Waylon Jennings combination effort.  This is also marred by the dated sounds of that period. This is not for me.  Disc 59 Highwayman 2 is like Highwayman but not as good.  If you can get past the overall sound of the thing, "Songs That Make A Difference", the Cash original is pretty good.  Disc 60 At Madison Square Garden is really great.  This is from a 1969 live show in New York and gives you an idea of what the Johnny Cash Show was during that period.  Johnny comes out and blows through ten killer tunes.  Carl Perkins rips through "Blue Suede Shoes".  The Statler Brothers nail "Flowers On The Wall".  The Carter Family sings a few.  Then Johnny comes back out and knocks it out of the park until a final medley wraps it all up.  I would have killed to have seen that show.  Disc 61 His Red Hot and Blue Guitar is the quintessential collection of his Sun Recordings.  Everything on this 28 song disc is good.  Most of it is great.  This is the entire blue print for the next 40 years of his recording career.  With the stripped down Tennessee Two, it sounds absolutely perfect.  You need this.  Disc 62 and Disc 63 Singles It seems impossible that with 61 earlier records there wouldn't be 56 songs that didn't find a home on those albums, but here you go.  "All Over Again", "I Got Stripes", "Girl In Saskatoon", "The Matador", "Dark As A Dungeon", "Rosanna's Goin Wild", and even a Dukes of Hazzard tribute in "The General Lee".  These last two discs are like a victory lap on what is an amazing box of music.  



At May 26, 2014 at 2:43:00 AM EDT , Blogger kioku said...

Awesome review. I am also listening to the whole set in sequence now, although I am not nearly as strict as you were. I'm taking them in groups of 5-10 and listening to the ones I enjoy a few times and then taking a break and listening to something else. I'm about up to the prison albums now and shudder as I read your comments about some of the ones coming up. Actually, some of them like "The Holy Land" sound so bad that they will be actually be fun in a way. By the way, LPs 9, 10 and 11 seem to be missing from your review. Perhaps the text got lost somewhere.

I have bookmarked your review and will reread as I work my way through. Thanks for the fun read!

At May 26, 2014 at 2:47:00 AM EDT , Blogger kioku said...

Sorry, meant to say comments on LPs 10, 11, 12 ("Christmas Spirit," "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I Walk the Line") were missing.

Thanks again!

At June 4, 2014 at 4:33:00 PM EDT , Blogger Greg Miller said...

The only way to listen to that Box Set is to make it a chore. A horrible never ending chore... I know I listened to those, as "I Walk The Line" is a good one. "Christmas Spirit" is my favorite of the Xmas records, though without the "little hatchet" speech it doesn't hit the highest individual mark of all the holiday recordings.

Good luck. The late 70s and 80s are Hard Times...


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