Johnny Cash – Bootleg Vol III – Live Around the World (review)

Johnny Cash – Bootleg Vol III – Live Around the World (Columbia/Legacy) CD review

We all could learn a lesson from Johnny Cash.  As we continue to divide ourselves, politically and socially, it’s nice to be reminded of one performer who saw no such boundaries. Bootleg Vol III – Live Around the World, the third in a series of archival releases from the fertile Cash vaults, features the legendary “Man in Black” in a wildly diverse series of settings.  Take, for example, his 1964 show at the famed Newport Folk Festival, where he’s brought on stage by left-wing activist Pete Seeger.  Yet, just a few tracks away, Cash is introduced by President Nixon before launching into a performance at the White House in 1970.

People tend to enjoy putting labels on their music, so Johnny Cash was dubbed a country artist, when, in reality, what he did is better described as “music of the people.”  Whether playing in front of a pack of disillusioned soldiers in Vietnam in 1969, adding a ray of sunlight to prisoners in Sweden in 1972, or entertaining corporate label execs in 1973, Cash’s music remained constant – emotional and headstrong.  The set spans 23 years, beginning in 1956 with a performance on the Big “D” Jamboree, where he introduces “I Walk the Line” as a new song.  It’s fun to hear him so young; he hadn’t found his stage presence yet, stammering over what to say in between songs.  Six years elapse between the next set of recordings at the New River Ranch in Maryland from 1963.  Here, Cash is much more at ease, even doing an impression of Elvis at one point.  He plays for a rowdy bunch in Long Binh, Vietnam that sounds eerily similar to his equally-spirited prison albums (San Quentin, Folsom Prison).

The real gem of this collection is the dozen songs he recorded at the White House.  Hearing Richard Nixon introduce him seems like something from an alternate universe.  Most artists would’ve been intimidated by such a prestigious venue, yet Cash pulls no punches, mentioning a meeting with Billy Graham before playing “Jesus Was a Carpenter,” and then frankly talking about the problems concerning the youth of today, then courageously singing “What is Truth.”  That deep commanding voice of his even made the President take notice.  Another standout is the rousing version of “Ragged Old Flag,” performed at the Carter Fold in 1976.  Just as the surroundings vary, so does the sound quality – excellent at times, and subpar at others.  But, hearing the spirited performances in such historical context, makes up for any sonic inequities.  Johnny Cash recorded a song late in his career called “I’ve Been Everywhere” – and Bootleg Vol III proves he wasn’t kidding.  –Tony Peters