By Mike Greenblatt
Every single one of the Columbia albums Johnny Cash recorded in his lifetime [1932-2003] — even the live albums — are presented in the mammoth, 63-disc boxed set “The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” (Sony Legacy, $212.12).
For the Cash completist, this is a must-have, dream-come-true offering. For the more casual fan, this box can feel a little bit daunting. By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just climbed Mount Everest.
Cash left Sun Records in Memphis for the greener pastures of Columbia because Sun’s Sam Phillips wouldn’t let Cash record any of his beloved gospel music. So after his terrific 1959 Columbia debut, “The Fabulous Johnny Cash,” where America first heard his original classic “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” there was “Hymns By Johnny Cash” — direct, heartfelt, distinct and reverent, with originals and a fine cover of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
Those discs give you just a hint of how wide a musical river this box set is to cross. I figured I’d do one album per day. I never considered the fact that some of the albums might be totally unlistenable.
“Songs Of Our Soil” is beautiful folk music, highlighted by a classic reading of Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckle Bird” and his “High And Rising,” written about the 1937 Mississippi River flood that almost ruined his family’s Arkansas farm. “Now, There Was A Song” and “Ride This Train” are surprisingly supple and lean folk music. The latter served as Cash’s first concept album, a travelogue about American workers. It’s filled with great songs by Red Foley, Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, plus Cash’s originals and his spoken-word hosting. Here, that style works.
It doesn’t for “Hymns From The Heart,” where Cash’s religious viewpoints proved a bit too much for me to take.
Two more folk-infused great albums flew by before Cash’s first best-of and a Christmas album. Another highlight: “The Carter Family With Special Guest Johnny Cash: Keep On The Sunny Side.” Then comes Cash’s first masterpiece, “I Walk The Line,” in 1964.
Cash’s love of American history comes to the fore for “Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian” and “Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads Of The True West.” On “Orange Blossom Special,” he discovers Bob Dylan (three times!).
“Everybody Loves A Nut” is a comedy album that, unfortunately, isn’t funny. “Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash And June Carter” has two Ray Charles covers. “From Sea To Shining Sea” is Cash’s patriotic album, and it’s almost as bad as “The Holy Land,” where he walks around with a tape recorder, talking about how he’s standing on the spot where Jesus was killed. You can hear shopkeepers in the background while Cash goes on about Jesus for 40 minutes.
“Johnny Cash at San Quentin,” his live masterpiece, shored up my resolve to continue to work my way through every inch of the box set. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he says, and the inmates go nuts. The line was so iconic, he used it as the title of his next album — and it’s a great one. Then comes clips from “The Johnny Cash Show,” which proved lame, as well as a few bad movie soundtracks.
Disc No. 27, “Man In Black” has Cash’s Dylan-inspired “Singin’ In Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” but the price is the totally unlistenable “The Preacher Said Jesus Said,” with a mini-sermon by the Rev. Billy Graham.
I felt like I was in school during “America: A 200-Year Salute In Story And Song.” I even started watching the clock to see when this one would be over. “The Johnny Cash Family Christmas” is woefully painful, and it almost drove me to give up this assignment. But then, things took an upward turn.
“The Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me” features Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash. A series of one classic legendary album after another shows Johnny Cash for the brilliant artist he was. “John R. Cash,” “One Piece At A Time,” “The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “The Rambler,” “I Would Like To See You Again,” “Gone Girl,” “Silver” and “Rockabilly Blues” has him finishing the ’70s and starting the ’80s in grand style — and restoring my faith and interest. Every single one of those aforementioned albums is brilliant, the kind of album on which one bases a reputation as an icon.
Then, there were some more records I found unappealing: children’s albums, religious claptrap and a few live duds.
Cash discovers Springsteen (for two songs) on 1983’s “Johnny 99,” an eminently enjoyable superstar album carefully constructed and artfully executed. You know, the kind of album you go back to over and over again. And things get even better from there. Albums No. 57, 58 and 59 are with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. You don’t get much better than that.
The indispensable bonus of the box set is “Singles Plus,” a fantastic two-CD, 56-song collection of single sides that are not on any album alongside his appearances on the albums of Dylan, The Carter Family, Earl Scruggs and Marty Robbins. And for a serious trip back in time “Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar” offers up a 28-track collection from The Man in Black’s days at Sun Records. GM