It's both as flawed and as necessary as you'd think. And Rick Rubin's got nothing to do with it.
Released some weeks ago to minimal fanfare and specified intent, From Memphis to Hollywood is among the more unsurprising and yet absolutely necessary packages that you can glance over on your next trip to the record store. The title says it all, broadly, but to narrow it down: there are two hours of Johnny Cash material on From Memphis to Hollywood , and at least half of that material has either never seen release, or has never seen release in the US. Sounds interesting, right? It is. But at the same time, there are few loops to be thrown.
The compilation is subtitled Bootleg Volume II. While Volume I was mostly recorded in the early '70s, Volume II reaches further back into the vaults (open and unopened) for '50s and '60s material. This outlines what Columbia is trying to do with these Bootleg Cash albums, which is the same thing that they are doing with those of Bob Dylan: compiling worthy demo material that shows a more complete picture of a great songwriter's transitions through a long career. But Cash's legacy in the '50s and '60s wasn't built on such intimate methods of songcraft, which is why even these unreleased demos don't quite measure up to those of someone like a Dylan or a Louis Armstrong. Cash was a songwriter who almost always rooted his performances in the here and now, meaning right now -- even when the lyrical sentiment was wistful or even nostalgic. It's because of this that his demos and outtakes, even in his heyday, can't help but sound less malleable and less wholly satisfying. Needless to say, though, most of these performances remain more essential than most of what's been placed on record shelves this year.
From Memphis to Hollywood begins with a radio broadcast, with Cash performing on-air with the Tennessee Two. This sequence is easily the highlight of the package, and it's not just because of the music, either. The compilers made the choice to leave in the readings of advertisements, which is not just a tactic to fill out the disc, but rather an intriguing snapshot of a specific time (the mid-'50s) and place (Memphis). Complete with the exaggerated enthusiasm of the announcer's on-air persona, advertisements for Apache with Burt Lancaster (in Technicolor), and home repair ads read by Cash himself while he asks for song requests ("If we don't know it, we'll learn it"), this radio set opens the package in a way that's arresting, enjoyable, and actually educational.
The set itself is rough-hewn, and Marshall Grant's bass is nearly inaudible. But the eager performances and that rhythm's irrepressible jaunt come through as clearly as they ever did. And since the treble end is so much more accentuated, you're also able to focus on whether Luther Perkins ever did miss a beat. (He didn't.) The American Library of Congress annually adds recordings of speech or pop music, to preserve material that's culturally significant or used to "inform or reflect life in the United States." This qualifies. And for a laugh, try listening to Cash read those hardware advertisements while you look at that famous picture of him flipping you off.
This radio show takes up 15 minutes of the two hours of material on Memphis to Hollywood. Does this sound daunting? It isn't, really -- just vaguely extensive. The rest of that first disc (the '50s) is compiled of demos or outtakes that are either rare or completely unreleased. Like most "bootleg" collections, the song quality varies. On the plus side, you get to hear an early demo of "I Walk the Line" that is slowed-down and sung quite dolefully, and there's several pleasant summer-y strums of other songs that would be tweaked-around later. But aside from the terrific "Leave That Junk Alone" (a hiccupped song to a drinking friend), "pleasant" is the ceiling for these songs. All are worth hearing, some more than once, but Cash's covers of Leadbelly ("Goodnight Irene") and Jimmie Rodgers ("Brakeman's Blues") lack the friendly rust of the former's and the bouncy humor of the latter's. And just for the record, "Get Rhythm" is one song that should never be slowed-down to one of those pleasant summer strums.
Regardless, the mere mass-market release of these rarities is a treat, and carry through the aforementioned sense of time and place with a particular up-frontness. It's interesting: Cash's early singing turned respectful or even antiquated whenever he sang religious songs this early in his career, yet comparing the confident lock-step of "Belshazzar"'s radio version with the acoustic demo still sounds like a world of difference. Comparisons like those are what make this material even stronger in retrospect, as you consider the time of the recordings -- right around 1955, which is when all that stuff started to happen.
The second disc (the '60s) throws this into even greater relief by showcasing more demos and some lesser-known singles that you may not have heard. Or perhaps you've heard them and have forgotten them, which is entirely understandable given some of the quality. The '60s was when Cash's voice was regularly framed around tons of echo, often accompanied by male/female backing vocals. Sometimes this worked out fine, as evinced by the way he dips his voice around the melody in "All Over Again", or in the ghostly sound of the backing singers in "Locomotive Man" (an effective imitation of a distant train whistle). And to be sure, there's some typical Cash-ian dark humor in "Five Minutes to Live" and the fantastic "The Losing Kind" ("I'd shoot myself, but I lost my gun / Well, I guess I'm just the losing kind").
Yet there's also a reason that most of this stuff has been glazed-over. A good deal of the '60s material uses arrangements or orchestrations that have not aged well, and probably didn't even sound all that essential at the time of release. This isn't to say that all of the productions are over-the-top: we get covers of Dylan, for instance ("One Too Many Mornings", which is made peppier and therefore rendered stiff), as well as "Thunderball" and some standards that we've heard before like "Send a Picture of Mother" -- a song that can't help but hit harder when it's being sung to prisoners.
But these merely competent songs stand alongside some fairly bombastic structures. Simply put, the theatrical horns and humorless readings amongst all that echo take away from the friendliness that made Cash such a charismatic personality in the first place. That's not to say that the man wasn't able to do these things well on occasion -- "Ring of Fire", anyone? But the melodies usually sound snoozy with these arrangements, and "Shifting, Whispering Sands" is the kind of kitsch that grandparents waltz to in your most bizarre nightmares, complete with Lorne Greene, the main actor from Bonanza, narrating and some ear-gouging backing vocals -- ghastly business, those. The previously-unreleased-in-the-US "There's a Mother Always Waiting" even makes use of a vibraphone, of all instruments, which just ends up sounding weird. As sure as a lazy strum has no place with "Get Rhythm", it's safe to say that a vibraphone has no place with Johnny Cash's voice. You can even hear the instrument's recording track being abruptly shut off midway through, a detail which doesn't do much to relieve the sense of artifice that hangs over the song.
It also doesn't help that the late-'60s stuff that winds the package down is pretty slow-going, save for a surprisingly great use of psychedelic fuzz-guitar to fill out "Put the Sugar to Bed" (a B-side) and a very funny take on Arthur Smith's "Foolish Questions" (with some new lyrics). The anticlimactic nature of this compilation may be refreshing in some ways, as you realize that Cash's career would take off again soon afterwards, and that these recordings were far from the end of his story. But with two discs worth of time, the vague nature of the sequencing can't help but linger disappointingly when the last forgettable demo brings it to a close.
While the quality of the songs on Memphis to Hollywood is mixed, it's possible that the light reaction to the package has to do with the fact that we've been seeing a lot of Cash -- or rather, Cash's image and material -- in the last several years. From Walk the Line to those many inconsistent Rubin albums to that True Grit trailer, it's understandable that From Memphis to Hollywood was only politely received. But, while not to discount the admitted lack of amazing material, this deserves a bit better.
Is this essential for the casual Johnny Cash fan? Probably not. But what makes From Memphis to Hollywood more than a mere compiler's wish is that the artist in question is one who deserves such comprehensive compiling. He earned it with a boatload of exceptional music -- some of which is released to us on these CDs. This package does, lest we forget, compile unreleased and rare material from a great artist at a particularly great period for American music -- so it's certainly interesting at the very least.
But fortunately, it's not the very least -- far from it, in fact. For all the inevitable flaws, the release of From Memphis in Hollywood is more than welcome, well worth the two discs. There's an advertisement that's tacked-on at the beginning of the album where a DJ helpfully reminds us not to forget about "that big show tomorrow night": A country jamboree that features Cash, Elvis Presley, and Wanda Jackson...among others. And all you can think is: "How could anyone forget about that?" Luckily, I'm sure that somebody recorded it.