CD Review of The Legend of Cash by Johnny Cash

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The Legend of Cash
starstarstarstarno star Label: Hip-O/Universal
Released: 2005
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The Legend of Cash, the umpteenth Johnny Cash greatest-hits collection to hit the market, has two things going for it that its predecessors have not: 1) It’s being released in conjunction with “Walk The Line,” the biopic that stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash, which’ll give it some serious press, and 2) It’s the first time a single-disc set has included material stretching from Cash’s Sun Records days all the way up to his American Recordings work with Rick Rubin.

Taking it as a given that, since it’s Johnny Cash, it’s good, let’s then examine the contents and see what makes owning the disc worthwhile or unnecessary, depending on your point of view.

First off, completists will growl all the way up to the cash register as they purchase this disc, owing to the fact that it includes an otherwise-unavailable early take of the title cut to Cash’s last studio album before his death, The Man Comes Around. As selling points go, it’s a little disappointing, however, since Cash fans who picked up the Unearthed box set from a few years ago had already heard an early take of the song that was included therein; sure, this one’s different from that one, but it’s a safe bet that there were other takes of other songs available in the vaults that could’ve been used as the obligatory unavailable-elsewhere inclusion.

Scoping out the contents, it’s inevitable that fans will grouse about what songs are missing, but the first four tracks – “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “I Walk The Line” – are inarguably indispensable. From there, however, your mileage may vary based on your personal favorites. “Get Rhythm” and “Big River” could just as easily have been switched out for “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “The Ways of a Woman in Love,” although the inclusion of “Guess Things Happen That Way” was a wise choice and one that few will quibble about. From there, “Ring of Fire” and “Jackson” are decidedly inevitable with the movie on the way, particularly given that June Carter Cash co-wrote the former (with Merle Kilgore) and duets with Johnny on the latter. And although it’s a Shel Silverstein song rather than a Cash original, Johnny’s name is so synonymous with the darkly hilarious “A Boy Named Sue” that throwing it on here was a must; besides, Cash was known as much for his interpretations of other people’s material as he was for his own compositions.

While it is, indeed, a notable accomplishment to start with the Sun material and end with the American Recordings stuff, it also makes for a really, really schizophrenic listening experience. Things stay pretty much with the traditional Cash sound for the first half of the proceedings, but after “One Piece at a Time” (the theme song for every automotive assembly line worker in America), things shift from the traditional bass-plucking to the ‘80s production sheen of “Highwayman.” Although it hasn’t aged terribly well, the Jimmy Webb composition remains the perfect scenario for Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings to each own a verse of the song, but, of the foursome, only Cash could possibly have pulled off that last verse, where he sings, “I fly a starship ‘cross the universe divide.” I mean, it’s a ridiculous line...but are you gonna laugh at Johnny Cash? Not me, brother.

After “Highwayman,” there’s an abrupt shift into icy ‘90s electropop; while it’s always cool to hear Cash’s collaboration with U2 – “The Wanderer,” the closer to their Zooropa album – its place in history comes not because it’s a great song but, rather, because it represented Johnny’s reintroduction into popular culture, this time as an alternative icon. Point being, both this track and “Highwayman” could’ve easily been tossed aside in favor of, say, songs that are totally and utterly Johnny, say, a token inclusion from Johnny’s years on Mercury. (“New Moon over Jamaica” or “Hidden Shame,” written for Cash by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, respectively, would’ve been nice selections.)

The American Recordings material is represented by “Delia’s Gone,” “Give My Love To Rose,” and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” along with covers of Soundgarden (“Rusty Cage”), Nine Inch Nails (“Hurt”), and the aforementioned “The Man Comes Around.” “Hurt” was always going to be on here, given that its video provided Johnny with an absolutely perfect farewell performance (and, when seen immediately after his passing, provoked reaction in viewers ranging from getting a little misty to a full-on opening of the floodgates), but why “Rusty Cage” rather than “One” or “Personal Jesus”? Why “I’ve Been Everywhere” rather than “The Beast In Me” or “Southern Accents” or...well, you see where this is going, and it’s right back to a comment made a few paragraphs ago: everyone has their favorites.

The Legend of Cash is ultimately no more definitive than any other best-of on the market, but, as a starting point for folks who walk out the theater after seeing “Walk the Line” and say, “I do believe I need to get me some Johnny Cash,” it’s a more than acceptable place to start.

~Will Harris