The Complete Columbia Album Collection
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"When one thinks of Johnny Cash's recordings, one thing is certain. The Columbia years loom larger than any other phase. A star when he arrived in 1958, when he departed, he was an American icon." (from the liner notes written by Rich Kienzle)
Representing the entirety of the musical performances released by the Man in Black on Columbia Records during his lifetime, Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a 63-CD treasure trove that will appeal equally to longtime Cash followers, as well as new¬comers to his timeless body of music.
Checking in with his 59 original album titles for Columbia, from 1958's The Fabulous Johnny Cash through the two Highwayman albums of 1985 and 1990 (with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson), this impressive box set is living history. It shows Cash in command of his country & western and gospel roots, blues, straight-ahead rock and roll, the traditional balladry and folk music he loved so dearly, and much more.
Adding to those seminal 59 albums are two new compilations: The Singles, Plus a 2-CD, 55-song collection of single sides that did not originally appear on albums, plus guest performances on other artists' albums, among them Bob Dylan, the Carter Family, mother Maybelle Carter, June Carter Cash, the Earl Scruggs Revue, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, and Shel Silverstein (spanning 1958-85). Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar a 28-song collection of single and non-single tracks released during his Sun Records years, 1954-58, including "Hey Porter," "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk The Line," "Cry! Cry! Cry!," "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen," "Big River," and more.
Box Set includes:
The Fabulous Johnny Cash
Hymns By Johnny Cash
Songs Of Our Soil
Now There Was A Song!
Ride This Train
Hymns From The Heart
The Sound Of Johnny Cash
Blood, Sweat And Tears
Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash
The Christmas Spirit
Keep On The Sunny Side
The Carter Family with special guest Johnny Cash
I Walk The Line
Bitter Tears: Johnny Cash Sings Ballads Of The American Indian
Orange Blossom Special
Johnny Cash Sings The Ballads Of The True West
Everybody Loves A Nut
Happiness Is You
Carryin' On With Johnny Cash And June Carter
From Sea To Shining Sea
Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
The Holy Land
Johnny Cash At San Quentin
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash
The Johnny Cash Show
I Walk The Line -Original Soundtrack Recording
Little Fauss And Big Halsey -Original Soundtrack Recording
Man In Black
A Thing Called Love
Johnny Cash: America A 200-Year Salute In Story And Song
Christmas -The Johnny Cash Family
Any Old Wind That Blows
The Gospel Road (2 Disc)
Johnny Cash And His Woman
Johnny Cash pa Osteraker
Ragged Old Flag
The Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me
The Johnny Cash Children's Album
Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories
John R. Cash
Look At Them Beans
One Piece At A Time
The Last Gunfighter Ballad
I Would Like To See You Again
The Survivors -Johnny Cash Jerry Lee Lewis Carl Perkins
The Adventures Of Johnny Cash
Koncert V Praze In Prague Live
Highwayman -Waylon Jennings Willie Nelson Johnny Cash Kris Kristofferson
Highwayman 2 -Waylon Jennings Willie Nelson Kris Kristofferson Johnny Cash
At Madison Square Garden
Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar
The Singles, Plus (2 Discs)
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So apart from the Sun releases, which are widely available, five albums on Mercury Records and the iconic American albums produced by Rick Rubin, this is pretty much the core of Johnny Cash's work.
The variety of Cash's output is may be surprising to some. It was Bruce Springsteen who pointed out how much humor Cash brought to his music and, for those used to his sombre Man in Black image, the presence of the comedy album Everybody loves a Nut may paint him in a different light. It's hard to think of another main stream singer who has released a comedy album.
In fact it's hard to think of any entertainer whose work has been so varied.There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a childrens' album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, including The Gospel Road which Cash produced in The Holy Land, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with Sun survivors Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish Prison and duet albums with June Carter. There are also two CDs of the singles Cash released on Columbia, plus Cash's guest appearances on other artist's albums
Most rewarding in many ways are the Americana albums from the sixties. If the biopic "Walk the Line" had a fault it was in portraying Cash as a self-destructive rockabilly singer with a one-track obsession with June Carter. In fact, Cash was incredibly hard-working and creative throughout the decade, researching folk and cowboy culture for a series of astonishing concept albums such as Ride this Train, Blood Sweat and Tears and Ballads of the True West. You can understand how this original work earned the respect and friendship of Bob Dylan.
Amongst the most powerful and satisfying of these records is Bitter Tears, a blistering attack on the treatment of native Americans, including the powerful Peter La Farge song The Ballad of Ira Hayes which brought Cash into conflict with the Nashville establishment. Also interesting is The Holy Land, a collection of original gospel songs inter-dispersed with audio recordings Cash made on location in Israel.
It is fair to say that Cash took risks with his music and that the recordings don't always work, or stand up well nearly 50 years later, but they give a fascinating insight into Johnny Cash's character and creativity.
It is hard to see the casual Cash fan paying out $220 plus for this box set although, at under $4 a CD, it is arguably brilliant value. It is more likely to be those who bought the original vinyl LPs who will want to listen again and fill the gaps of those they didn't acquire at the time.
Altogether an amazing body of work from one of the most prolific of music's all time greats.
If you are generous enough to give this to the Cash fan in your life as a Christmas present, bear in mind they may still be playing it next Easter. 63 CD's take a long time to get through !
I expected the discs not being remastered to mean that they would sound like the old lps, with their flaws and noise, and was fine with that. (I have plenty of commercial cds like that). But instead we get his anemic sound that is insulting to the Cash legacy.
Much accompaniment--both instrumental and vocal--is faint or inaudible. The edge is off his voice, Anita Carter's voice, lots of the picking muffled or just gone. Who was in charge of this project?! Had they no idea of the Cash sound of all those years? How could the final version ever be approved?
I'm deciding whether to return the set in disgust or to keep it because it may be the only version of some of the material I'll ever have. Right now, just after playing some tracks on random discs, outrage is winning.
If you're looking for authentic Cash above all, do not buy.
Country music was never in my house growing up, so my first exposure to Cash was as a teen in the 90's. Honestly, some old country singer playing an acoustic version of Soundgarden's Rusty Cage just didn't do it for me.
It wasn't until 2000 when a record shop in my city was closing down and I picked up the 10-track Giant Hits compilation for about three bucks that the world of Johnny Cash opened up to me. That album exposed me to a wide range of his Columbia sound - from the sparseness of 1959's "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", through the big hits of the mid-late 60's ("Ring of Fire", "Boy Named Sue"), to the slick late 70's and early 80's ("Ghost Riders..." and "The Baron").
My next steps, by mere chance, were wise ones: the great Folsom Prison and San Quentin live albums. Since then, I have devoured all the Cash I can. I still don't own most of the Rubin-era recordings, but I have everything from the 60's, most of the 70's output, and more recently a good chunk of his 80's recordings as well.
To assemble such a collection is pain-staking and expensive. Sony has blessed us with the wonderful Legacy reissues over the years, but they have left many holes in the collection. They've covered nothing from the 80's, very little from the 70's (no Man in Black!?) and about half of Cash's 60's output (all of which is essential listening). In recent years, they've taken to issuing compilations rather than full album re-issues, which has made fans worry, will classic albums like I Walk the Line and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash ever get a proper re-issue?
To build a complete Johnny Cash collection has meant scouring used record shops, and paying about 8 bucks each for well-worn copies of his old albums on vinyl. I've been lucky over the years - a copy of the rare Word Records' I Believe album for $7 (now available on Bootleg Vol IV), a nice UK copy of Man in Black in a London flea market for 5 pounds, and a mono copy of Orange Blossom Special for $0.10 at a garage sale.
Then there are the singles. 45's were cheap, and don't generally stand the test of time. Thus, getting b-sides like Folsom Prison's The Folk Singer, or wonderful single only a-sides like No Need to Worry is possible should you have the patience to sift through box upon box of old singles at garage sales far and wide. When you throw them on the turntable at home, though, they are usually full of scratches and surface wear.
Then along comes the Complete Columbia Album Collection, making such hunting almost entirely irrelevant. Here we have every album Cash put out for Columbia in their original format, plus two discs of those singles and b-sides, with a nice smattering of collaborative tunes, and a greatest hits package from his Sun era. All for somewhere in the $2-$4/disc price range. How anyone can complain, I don't know.
What I love about this package is that you get every (!) album as they were originally intended. I've gotten so used to the expanded editions of several of the albums, that this is actually the first time I've heard many of them as so many fans did in the decades before the Legacy editions came out. Most striking to my ears is Pa Osteraker. Re-released a few years ago as the complete concert, here we have the original Swedish LP wonderfully remastered in its original track listing and mix. Most notably, the fiddle overdubs removed for the complete Legacy edition have been restored and they sound great. Hearing the original pared-down track listing has made me appreciate this album as a great complement to its big brothers, Folsom and San Quentin.
In terms of content, the set is what it is: the Complete Columbia Collection. Other reviews have discussed the breadth of Johnny's output for Columbia and they are right. He moved on very quickly from the minimal Sun Records sound. Likewise, these releases are miles away from the post-modern revisionism of many of the beautiful recordings he did later in life with Rick Rubin. Some people love bits of Cash - his gospel output or the rebel giving the finger to the press - but I appreciate his complexity. If anything he sang about his passions: he loved humour, he loved his God, he loved his woman, and he loved the downtrodden and underdogs. While his sound became overly-slick by the end of his Columbia tenure (not to mention his Mercury years), these elements always came out in his music. If you're interested in exploring all of these, you will find them in droves in this collection.
The set is not perfect. A rarities disc would be appreciated. This might include the 10-minute Lure of the Grand Canyon narrative, his German and Spanish singles, the Tennessee Two Singles, as well as outtakes featured on other Legacy editions. The Sun-era disc is really unnecessary. And, as others have discussed, where, oh where, is Destination Victoria Station?
That said at the price point, who can complain? Finally, so many treasures from a prolific, incredibly influential artist are released on CD! The price is affordable for such a mammoth volume (compare this to the 4/5-disc Bear Family sets and you'll see). This is a wonderful set for existing fans looking to round out their collection or upgrade from old records (thanks for the mono versions, too!), or for new fans looking to move beyond compilations and a few albums. It won't give you everything, but it will give you a lot.
All you'll need after this are the bootleg series, the prison box sets, a good Sun-era collection, the Mercury albums, the American Recordings... you've been warned!
POST-REVIEW FOLLOW-UP: Having had the set for a week now, I am, overall very happy with it. To my ears, there has been some mild remixing done in parts. For example, the reverb on Orphan on the Road (from the album Man in Black) seems to be lighter than my original LP. If any changes have been made, they make the music cleaner and clearer, though, so I am happy with them. I continue to have some quibles, especially that "A Thing Called Love" only contains the shorter US version of "Kate", not the longer version found on my Canadian LP pressing. Also, I have mixed feelings about the first 19 albums being released in mono. For the Beatles, I find the mono pressings far superior (especially Sgt. Pepper). For Johnny Cash, though, I think stereo is better. Throughout the 60's his albums became increasingly orchestrated and lend themselves to stereo treatment. Most of these albums are short enough to fit stereo and mono on one disc (like the Beatles Capital sets, or Beach Boys reissues). That would have been a wonderful treat here. As it is, the mono releases are a good complement to the existing Legacy stereo releases; however, several albums from this era still have not seen the light of day on stereo cd.
Last, be sure to check every disc for quality. My Highwaymen CD was corrupted (plays in a CD player, but will not rip to computer). Amazon has been helpful in issuing a replacement, but I decided to stick with what I had.
ONE-YEAR FOLLOW-UP: One year in and I still love this set. I have noticed that the remastering on previously unreleased-on-CD albums is quite neutral. For example, the song "Everybody Loves a Nut" was remastered several years ago for the compilation, A Boy Named Sue and Other Story Songs. That version has a more modern feel with the bass brought to the fore. The new box set is faithful to the original sound, simply sounding like a cleaned up version of my old LP. Personally, I prefer this approach. If you're familiar with the Beatles remasters, this box set takes the approach of the mono set (make it sound as good as it could have sounded back then) rather than the stereo set (tweak it a bit for modern ears). Well done, Columbia!
For those interested, I've been working through detailed reviews of Johnny's catalogue on my blog, raisemyglasstothebside at wordpress dot com.