When great recording artists die, it’s as sure a bet as an increasing national debt that every record company with even the smallest slice of that artist’s work in their vaults will haul it out and find some supposedly heartfelt way to sell it. With Johnny Cash, it’s no exception. Since his long career stretched back to the days when song rights were not so scrupulously handled, he is one of those artists who has several billion records, tapes, and CDs in the world bearing his name, the vast majority of which are rip-offs of one form or another. For the neophyte Cash fan, it can be downright intimidating trying to pick out the single compilation that will provide the best introduction to the work of a man the world is rediscovering upon his death. Think record companies try to take advantage of the confusion of beginners? I do, and here’s an example why.
Madacy, in association with Sony Music, has released the curiously titled double-disc collection, The Original: Best Of. The first question that springs to the astute brain: Is this the original best-of compilation, or is it instead a twofer of albums called The Original Johnny Cash and Best of Johnny Cash? To the poor sap with the furrowed brow at the record store, both options seem appealing enough, and considering the low price for a double album and the handsome black-and-white photos gracing this oddity, said sap decides he can’t go wrong and buys it. But give a man some time to do research at home, and he’ll discover the dark, dark secret lurking behind the pleasant exterior of The Original: Best Of.
If there is some cosmic quota for subpar musical tonnage to be excreted per record company, Sony Music has almost certainly reached theirs well ahead of schedule. To take some examples selected seemingly at random, they put out an album on July 7, 1992 called Giant Hits, featuring the music of one John R. Cash. Coming out at the height of grunge, its ugly ‘70s-era cover photo and telltale budget-line practice of listing song titles on the front ensured that this would not replace Nevermind as the zeitgeist of the era. And despite its titular claim, the record was not filled with giant hits, or at least not entirely. The first half was full of classics like “I Walk the Line”, the second full of also-rans. Flash forward to a date I like to call April 28, 1998. Sony Music releases an album, also by Cash, called Crazy Country. The cover featured a photo of an affable but puffy Cash in the foreground with a hideous yellow-and-orange cartoon hillbilly scene behind him. What the world needed to cure its post-Nirvana malaise, Sony decided, was a cheap look at the wacky side of Johnny Cash, featuring such unforgettable classics as “Everybody Loves A Nut”, “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”, and “The Chicken in Black.” The only thing classic about this collection was the sucker punch Sony pulled by including a live version of the one true gem, “A Boy Named Sue”, instead of the studio take.
And what do these two records have to do with The Original: Best Of? It’s quite simple, really. Disc one is Crazy Country. Disc two is Giant Hits. They didn’t even have the decency to shuffle the track order around.
Of all the galling moves from record companies, well, many are as disgusting as this one, but still, this is the behavior of genuine scoundrels. Coming just a couple of months after the man’s death and with pseudo-pious packaging and liner notes, The Original: Best Of grins as it bastardizes and does both well enough to put P. Diddy to shame. And if they simply found it a moral imperative to re-dump two bizarre duds on the world in the wake of Cash’s demise, would it have been too much to ask that they combine them onto one disc? It’s not as if “Look at Them Beans” is included in some half-hour raga version. Working with CDs as often as they do, you’d think that Sony would know their capacity and be able to do the math. They’re short albums that could’ve been combined easily into one instead of masquerading as some kind of bargain.
Then again, perhaps I’m being too hasty. Perhaps Sony and Madacy felt they must preserve the integrity of Crazy Country and Giant Hits. After all, those albums were part of Cash’s legacy to the world, and now that he is no longer with us, doesn’t every last bit of what he left us either himself or by proxy through multinational music conglomerates deserve the monumental dignity that the Man in Black commanded? Forget everything else I’ve just said. Buy this solemn tribute to a beloved American icon today.