By Mike Greenblatt
“Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Collection” is a whopping 63-CD monster box set that chronicles his 28 years (out of a 48-year recording career) with Columbia Records.
The lavishly packaged box represents every album — live and studio — that came out during his lifetime with the label. The sheer majesty and power of his output is a gaudy testament to a man who had no fear … and always just let the chips fall where they may. Cash courted controversy regularly. A natural-born rebel, he knew his constituency was conservative, yet he was hell-bent to educate as well as entertain.
In 1954, Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was a struggling Memphis appliance salesman with aspirations to sing gospel music. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips convinced him to sing country. In 1955 and 1956, with two auto mechanic friends — Marshall Grant on bass fiddle and Luther Perkins on electric guitar — he did just that. In that small legendary room at 706 Union Ave., Cash recorded what became the bedrock of modern country music: songs like “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line” and “Big River.” By 1957, he was disgusted with miniscule royalties and the fact that Phillips wouldn’t let him record his precious gospel music, nor would Phillips let him record all of the concept albums Cash had in his brain.
“He had so many albums in mind,” says boxed set producer Gregg Geller, “but Sun wasn’t really equipped to be an album label at that time. They were a singles label and really only released one album by him during his time there. They released six or seven more after he left, but Sun was a small, independent label. Columbia, most definitely, was able to fulfill his artistic vision.”
Elvis Presley had left for RCA. Jerry Lee Lewis kept rockin’ for Sun. Producer Don Law offered Perkins and Cash Columbia deals, promising Cash he’d be able to record both gospel and concept albums. Cash’s 1958 Columbia debut, “The Fabulous Johnny Cash,” made it to No. 19 on the pop chart (there was no country chart yet). He was off and running. He wrote his first No. 1 song that year, the old west ballad “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.” Law kept his promise as Cash’s gospel dream came true on “Hymns By Johnny Cash.” Album No. 3, “Songs Of Our Soul,” veered toward folk music.
“Johnny’s career was so varied,” Geller says. “There’s no question that what he did after he left Sun is every bit the equal of his original recordings. He was such a great artist who went on to do so many diverse types of things.”
Space limitations prevent us from mentioning every album in this box, but there are some definite highlights, especially for fans of monaural audio.
“The first 19 albums were originally released in both mono and stereo,” explains Geller. “For the purposes of this box, we went with mono. These were tapes that hadn’t been used for a good, long time. It presented its own set of potential difficulties. The work was time-consuming.”
In 1960, Cash performed at San Quentin. One prisoner, in jail for armed robbery, listened closely. The music had a profound effect on Inmate A-45200, later known to music fans as Merle Haggard. That year, Cash realized two more dreams, adding acting to his resumé, portraying a psychotic murderer in “Door To Door Maniac,” and releasing his first concept album. “Ride This Train: A Stirring Travelogue Of America” started his lifelong journey of hailing the working men and women of this country. It came complete with his spoken narratives.
Always with an ear to country music’s illustrious past, Cash covered songs by Jimmie “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers (1897-1933) and country music’s First Family, The Carter Family. In fact, a second generation of Carters joined Cash’s traveling roadshow (as did Carl Perkins). In 1962, “The Sound Of Johnny Cash” even had him covering Leadbelly (1888-1949). Cash loved folk music so much that when another Columbia artist, Bob Dylan, took the folk world by storm in 1963, Cash wrote him a fan letter, and Dylan wrote one back. Thus started a mutual admiration society between the two that would last for years. Cash expounded upon his working-man thesis in his second concept album, 1963’s “Blood, Sweat And Tears;” it featured the hit single “Busted,” written by Harlan Howard that was covered just months later by Ray Charles.
In 1964, Billboard debuted its country album chart. It was then that Cash’s next single became, arguably, his most identifiable song. Anita Carter had previously cut a song written by her sister, June, and Merle Kilgore called “Ring of Fire” that went nowhere. Cash had an actual dream one night about adding mariachi horns to the song Mexicali-style, and producer Don Law made it happen. “Ring Of Fire” was Billboard’s first No. 1 country album, the title song going Top 20 pop and No. 1 country.
Controversy erupted on that year’s “Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian” when its single, “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes,” chronicled the tragedy of one of the Marines who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in the South Pacific during World War II only to die back home drunk, neglected and mistreated 10 years later. Radio wouldn’t touch it until Cash personally paid for protest ads in the music trade papers. The song ultimately reached No. 3.
When his friend Bob Dylan was roundly castigated in the folk community for going electric and first playing rock ’n’ roll, Cash came to his defense, telling the naysayers to “shut up and let him sing.” Another concept album, “Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads Of The True West,” came out in 1965. Although drugs started robbing the artist of some of his vitality, “Everybody Loves A Nut” (1966) showed he at least had a sense of humor. In 1967, “Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash and June Carter” contained a rewrite of The Kingston Trio’s “Jackson,” as well as two Ray Charles covers, “I Got A Woman” and “What’d I Say.” It was he last album Don Law would ever produce for Cash, as he was 65 and faced mandatory retirement.
In 1968, fresh off battling his drug demons and divorced from his first wife, Vivian, Cash married June Carter. Over the protests of Columbia brass and amid a growing hippie counter-culture protesting the Vietnam war, Cash went back to jail, recording that year’s biggest surprise hit, “Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison.” It struck a chord with old-school country die-hards as well as rock ’n’ roll fans for its honesty, no-frills presentation, rebellious attitude and outright balls. And it made him a superstar.
In 1969, ABC-TV gave Cash his own variety show. He took that opportunity and ran with it, presenting America with the kind of legendary artistry on a weekly basis the country had never seen: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie, Nelson Neil Young, Pete Seeger, Eric Clapton and Crosby Stills & Nash. The shows hold up today as a fascinating example of what one could do with such balls. Defying ABC-TV censors who warned him against singing the line “wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned,” in Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he did it anyway. (The composer, sitting upstairs for the live show, said years later he almost fell off the balcony when he heard it.)
Then Cash played Madison Square Garden. “We included in the box,” says Geller, “the Live At Madison Square Garden, recorded in 1969, but not released until 2002…with his blessing, I might add.”
A slump in sales occurred when Cash’s show went off the air. A concept album, “A 200-Year History In Story And Song,” came out in 1972. A year later, another duet album with June, “Johnny Cash And His Woman,” was released. More acting ensued. Johnny was big enough to do whatever the hell he wanted at this point. “The Junkie And The Juicehead (Minus Me)” came out in 1974. “One Piece At A Time” (1976) returned him to the charts. “I Would Like To See You Again” (1978) came out during the explosion of Outlaw Country that Willie and Waylon pioneered; it featured Waylon on the tracks “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang” and “I Wish I Was Crazy Again.”
“Silver” (1979), “Rockabilly Blues “(1980) and “Johnny 99” (1983) showed Cash continuing to juxtapose the old and the new; the ’83 album featured two tracks by Bruce Springsteen, the title track and “Highway Patrolman.”
“Highwayman” (1985) put Johnny with Willie, Waylon and Kris. The title tune, previously recorded by Glen Campbell, featured all four legends and it went to No. 1. Cash’s final Columbia album was “Rainbow,” released later that year.
Beyond Cash’s albums, there are two bonus discs included in this box set.
“We always like to offer something extra,” explains Geller. “There seemed to me to be two obvious ways to go, and we ended up doing both of them. One was to provide a sampler of material that he cut for Sun Records prior to joining Columbia. During the Columbia years, and therefore represented on all these albums, he re-recorded quite a few of his most famous Sun recordings. It seemed kind of odd to me to have the re-recordings but not the originals. So we included a CD of 28 songs of the original Sun recordings. These are the records that provide the basis, the foundation, of his career. It seemed worthwhile to offer them as part of this set. It also provided an opportunity to replicate the entire front and back cover of his first Sun album … which is one of my favorite album covers of all-time. That made it extra special for me.
“The other bonus is a two-CD set of 56 Columbia recordings that weren’t on his original albums. They were either A-side or B-side singles or guest appearances on the albums of other Columbia artists, everybody from Bob Dylan to Ray Charles to The Earl Scruggs Review, even a brief appearance at the tail end of Shel Silverstein’s ‘A Front Row Seat To Hear Ol’ Johnny Sing.’
Also featured: select famous recordings of Cash’s that, believe it or not, never made it onto an album, save for perhaps a hits compilation.
“‘What Is Truth” is an example,” Geller said. “It’s a protest song he released in the early ’70s during the Vietnam war. He sang it at The White House for President Nixon, which was a fairly bold move at the time. It’s a song that sticks up for youth, protesters and people with long hair. It had only been on a greatest-hits package and since we weren’t including those because it would only be, for the most part, total duplication, this bonus two-CD set, called ‘Singles Plus,’ made for an opportunity to include songs like that.”