A quick count reveals that Johnny Cash has released around a 100 albums of original material since his humble beginnings in the ’50s. Not bad, but he (or whichever record company he was under at the time) has also plundered the vaults to the tune of nearly 200 compilations, greatest hits collections, and assorted ephemera. That’s a rate that would put the Who to shame.
Some of these compilations are pretty good. The recent The Essential Johnny Cash does a good job with the Sony years, and The Essential Sun Singles is well worth picking up. For those of a thematic bent, you could do far, far worse than the Murder, Love, and God collections from a few years back. For some, it’s a moot point; Sony Legacy is currently in the middle of reissuing classic Cash CDs, and the diehard fan will certainly want those. For the casual fan, though, who just wants “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” on the same CD, Cash’s catalog can be a bit overwhelming.
The new kid on the block is 20th Century Masters — The Millenium Collection: The Best of Johnny Cash. The 20th Century Masters series has always been a problematic enterprise. In the wake of label consolidations, Universal’s found it to be a handy way of presenting inexpensive compilations on virtually all of their catalog artists. In some cases, it does the trick; in others, it’s a futile attempt to gloss across some very deep catalogs.
With Johnny Cash, the prospect becomes even more dicey. This collection covers only his Mercury years, which were short and fairly undistinguished. Sure, 20th Century Masters has “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and a handful of other familiar Cash tunes, but they come from a 1987 CD called Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series, which found Cash re-recording some of his classic songs. Johnny Cash songs are rarely bad, especially when they’re done by Johnny Cash, but it doesn’t take much work to find a collection that has definitive, original versions of many of these songs. Cash certainly doesn’t phone it in on these reworkings of his vintage material, but they lack the crispness and fire of the original versions (let’s face it, there’s really no going back after you’ve heard him sing “Folsom Prison Blues” at Folsom Prison). Of the 12 songs on 20th Century Masters only three represent original material from his stint at Mercury Records.
“The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” is a humorous tale with guest vocals by Waylon Jennings. His version of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” features a brisk pace and tinkly piano, but is hardly essential. The strongest of the three “true” Mercury tracks is easily “Wanted Man” (co-written with Bob Dylan), which fits into the classic Cash mold. These glimpses of an obscure period in Cash’s career, though, are obscured by the reworkings.
Cash’s career has never been marked by droughts of absolutely wretched material, and every phase of his career (from Sun to Sony to Mercury to Sony again) bears something worth hearing. 20th Century Masters isn’t a proper document of those Mercury years, though. It’s reliance on reworked versions of songs Cash originally performed for other labels falsely implies that he really didnt do anything interesting for Mercury. It’s true that Cash’s Mercury years will never stand up to his years at Sun or Sony, but they weren’t a complete washout. In that sense, 20th Century Masters does a disservice not only to Cash, but to fans who might unwittingly pick up this flawed collection.