The current wave of Greatest Hits / Best Of / Essential / Whatever We Have the Licensing Rights To collections that have flooded stores are a typification of the modern popular music market, a furious label cash-grab at the expense of the baby boomers and others who long for the nostalgia of their formidable years. The smashing success of Beatles 1 sent a message that was just loud enough for label execs to notice that people will buy into the past as long as it’s being sold. There’s seemingly a new Dylan bootleg or reissue on the shelf with every passing week. For those who missed their halcyon period about three days ago, Semisonic has a hits collection available. There are three separate collections still in print that celebrate the hallowed oeuvre of Norman Greenbaum, for crying out loud. (For the record, “Spirit in the Sky” is track one on two of them; though the other does attempt to cover its tracks by including a demo version in addition to including the original at track two.) If it wasn’t for the Beatles, as well as the recent raiding and pillaging of Bob Dylan’s catalogue, Johnny Cash might have the distinction of having his name slapped on the most stuff in the history of popular music. There is no shortage of Johnny Cash material out there for public consumption, which might cause you to ask, “why should I buy this collection?” Well, the answer to that lies in your degree of curiosity, for as many choices as there are, there’s probably one out there that fits exactly what you’re looking for. And this one isn’t a bad place to start.
J.R. Cash’s music has been sliced and diced into just about every combination imaginable, with sets covering his different eras, his spells with different labels, his live albums or his forays into different genres. The Legend of Johnny Cash, the latest comer to the party (and also confoundingly sharing a key title descriptor with the four-CD box set The Legend, though the two are completely unrelated) is unique for the sole fact that it is none of those things. It is the first concise collection to be released since his death that attempts to cover the span of his entire career, tipped off by the fact that at least four different record labels are cited in the album’s liner notes. It supplants Columbia’s two-disc Essential Johnny Cash set from 2002, which, unlike this compilation, featured nothing more recent than his guest starring spot on U2’s “The Wanderer” from 1993’s Zooropa. The Legend of Johnny Cash, a single-disc set that is presented ideally, in chronological order, spares a half-dozen tracks for his late-era work with Rick Rubin at American Recordings. Not the least of these are his covers of Hank Snow’s 1962 hit “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” the latter of which went great distances in cultivating him a whole new audience and bridging a massive generational gap.
While obsessives may have their token qualms about the song choices, there is very little to argue with in both the selection and presentation. Cash’s debut single “Cry! Cry! Cry!” opens the disc, and is followed by a parade of his most memorable tunes, with “Folsom Prison Blues” (and its legendary “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die” lyric) stacked right next to “I Walk the Line” and the indomitable “Get Rhythm.” The June Carter-penned “Ring of Fire,” with its mariachi horn arrangement, very appropriately precedes “Jackson,” one of the pair’s most endearing duets. The album also cherry picks his live San Quentin version of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” framed by the hoots and hollers of his captive audience. Cash’s popularity as a solo artist waned significantly for a period encompassing much of the last quarter of the century, and that gap is accurately represented. There are only two tracks featured from 1971 to 1993, one of which is his titular collaboration with the Highwaymen, the collective that also included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “Highwayman” wears its 1980’s production values on its sleeve; it and “The Wanderer” are the only tunes on the album that are out of keeping with his traditional sound. The Rubin numbers do have a modern polish to them, but for the most part their presentation is sparse and minimal, as to not overwhelm Cash’s weakened baritone.
There have been literally dozens of compilations dedicated to Johnny Cash over the years, but novices and newbies looking for an easy Johnny Cash 101 primer will find that The Legend of Johnny Cash fits the bill just about perfectly. There is little if any at all to fault about the track selection. All of his most well-known songs are here, and it gives about as strong a cross-section of his career as you’re likely to find. It does have the advantage of being the only one so far that pulls from his entire career, thanks to the wonderfully convoluted world of licensing rights. Granted, with a man who was so prolific and larger-than-life, a single disc is hardly sufficient in gaining a accurate point of view, but most will see that this collection is not a means to an end. Those who find their curiosity piqued with a few listens to this collection (and who wouldn’t, really) will find themselves wanting to upgrade their Cash catalogue. At that point I might suggest looking for the full-concert reissues of his legendary live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, as well as a combination of the previously-mentioned The Legend box set and any of his later-era American Recordings material.
There is such an overwhelming amount of Johnny Cash music available to the public that it becomes hard to pin down which or how many albums a particular person might want. The hypothetical combinations are endless. Those looking for a Beatles 1-esque starter kit will find a lot to like about The Legend of Johnny Cash, it serves its purpose about as well as one could imagine. The commercial and critical success of Walk the Line will likely send more than its share of inquisitive folks shuffling to the store next door or into the mall adjoining the cineplex looking for readily consumable Man In Black collections. Being that the soundtrack album is comprised solely of performances from the film, this compilation will become a primary option for many of those neophytes, and it’s perfect for them. As good as the movie performances are, it’s no substitute for the real thing. Accept no imitations. Until you know better, at least.