(This review originally appeared over at www.spectrumculture.com)
The Man In Black was an American musical icon, having released some of the finest country, folk and rock music ever known to man, beginning in 1955 all the way up until his death in 2003. These days Cash’s legacy is such (thanks in part to success of the 2005 biopic Walk The Line) that all a record company needs to do is fill a disc with standards like “Ring Of Fire”, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk The Line” and they’ll attract a sizable audience. Columbia/Legacy does this much with their new four-volume series of Cash releases that come under the umbrella title of “The Greatest”, but they also hit a few roadblocks along the way which prevent them from being the definitive overviews they should be.
The albums separate Cash’s output from 1956 to 1985 into four categories: The Number Ones, Duets, Country Classics and Gospel Songs. While the lyrical theme-based Love, God, Murder box-set from 2000 made for much neater categorization, the real shortcoming of these albums is that the compilers couldn’t include any material from Cash’s comeback period, spanning 1994-2003. Not only did producer Rick Rubin reboot Cash’s career commercially during this period, but he also helped produce some of his most artistically satisfying music ever. Leave those songs out and you’re leaving out an important chunk of the Johnny Cash story.
Without the final act of Cash’s discography to add punch, the compilers end up dedicating way too much space to songs from Cash’s lowest period, which began in the mid-’70s and lasted until the Rubin comeback-era. As much as he tried to soldier on in the face of waning commercial interest, Cash was burnt out and tired, and his music from this period was a huge leap backwards, heavily dominated by cheap Hee Haw-style country corn. Seventeen of the 61 songs on these four discs come from this period and they‘re all pretty bad. The Duets, in particular, takes an overwhelming share of its songs (eight of 14) from this period of artistic down-turn, although it’s somewhat redeemed by the inclusion of “Another Man Done Gone” from 1962 which hasn’t been part of many previous Cash compilations. The tale of a hanging performed as an a cappella call-and-response duet with his sister in-law Anita Carter is one of the most haunting songs from Cash’s first decade of activity. It’s certainly a revelation when heard among the lesser likes of “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” (a 1980 duet with Billy Joe Shaver) and “The Greatest Cowboy Of The All” (a 1978 turd pushed out with help from Waylon Jennings).
Okay, so this series forces you to encounter some songs that were perhaps better left forgotten (and the album covers are ugly), but for every track you’ll want to skip, there’s three you’ll want to savor. When you consider that all that good music comes at a low cost, and with good remastering, you’ll see that, while far from perfect, these collections are a great way to acquire a lot of Johnny Cash fast and cheap, and therein lies their value.