On the toes of the new Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black, chances are that the fertile Cash Greatest Hits market is once again primed for a record harvest. There are now more Johnny Cash compilations on store shelves than original albums, repackaging and dressing up the hits for every demographic one can imagine targeting. There are the haphazardly sequenced truck stop/lower tier department store cassettes that tempt you for $3.99 as you walk the line for tube socks. Then you’ve got more recent concept collections like Love, God, Murder that organize Cash’s repertoire thematically. Finally, there are some real meaty box sets like Unearthed, which wraps up his final years with American, and Sony’s The Legend (not to be confused with The Legend of Johnny Cash) which covers pretty much everything else.
Hip-O’s The Legend of Johnny Cash is a curious amalgam of all three Cash compilation styles. It has its easy marketing appeal as a convenient tie-in with the Walk the Line film, as well as the gimmicky honor of being the first to include songs from his work with Sun, Columbia, Island, and American. It attempts definitiveness in a tight little single disc package, from his earliest record, “Cry! Cry! Cry!” b/w “Hey Porter”, to his famous cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. But while it weighs in at a hefty 21 tracks, and clocks in at just over an hour, it could stand to push the limits of the CD format. There is room enough on the aluminum platter for at least four more tunes, which could have rectify Legend’s lack of balance.
The Legend of Johnny Cash is a see-saw with the weight resting on his most popular early tracks like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Big River”, and “Ring of Fire”. The other side is a generous share of six Rick Rubin-produced cuts, including an early take of “The Man Comes Around”. The selections from both of these successful stretches of Cash’s recording career are undoubtedly great, especially the Sun and Columbia tracks. For the purposes of this single disc retrospective, designed in expectations of a new Phoenix/Witherspoon propelled fan-base, it’s an easy job for the compiler to pick out only the biggest hits. “Jackson”? Check. “Get Rhythm”? Check. It’s was also a nice to surprise to hear the uncensored version of “A Boy Named Sue”. The compiler’s work gets a little dicey with the American era, when Cash was a hit with critics and college kids, but all but lost to mainstream country radio. Apart from the ubiquitous “Hurt”, there are no clear number ones. But Hip-O did a decent, if safe, job here with the Soundgarden cover “Rusty Cage”, and “I’ve Been Everywhere”, which is unfortunately sweeping the nation right now on some kind of TV commercial.
The real nasty stretch of this disc is the fulcrum, the link between the anti-corporate “One Piece at a Time” (1976) and the grisly “Delia’s Gone” (1994). Two songs (“Highwayman” and “The Wanderer”) are all that Legend offers for that nearly twenty-year gulf. Of course, no one made it through the ‘80’s without a dud, or a string of them-but surely there were more or better choices to tie Legend’s two halves together. “Highwayman” is notable as the signature cut of the Highwaymen, the mid-‘80s supergroup consisting of Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. But its production values have not aged well, particularly when highlighted in the middle of this collection. Similarly, the synth-laden U2 collaboration sounds out of place. Despite their importance in demonstrating another aspect of Cash’s career, this record would be better off without their inclusion unless they were supported by more tracks from that period, which would make them seem less anomalous. Every Cash fan could come up with a list of four more tracks that could round out this disc, from “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Girl from the North Country” to “Thirteen” and “The Ballad of Barbara”. If you don’t already have the means to make your own Cash mix, and wish to start your collection with The Legend of Johnny Cash, just make sure it’s a start and not a finish.
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