Johnny Cash – Complete Albums Collection (review)

Johnny Cash – The Complete Columbia Album Collection (Columbia / Sony Legacy) review

The crown jewel of Cash collections – 63 discs – covering his most fertile years.

2012 was quite a year for Johnny Cash’s music.  On what would’ve been his 80th year, his former label and estate rolled out an impressive array of compilations and archival releases, all celebrating different aspects of his long and varied career.

From Bootleg IV – The Soul of Truth (read our review), which covered rare gospel and spiritual tracks, to Number Ones (read our review), which collected his best-known songs, to We Walk the Line (read our review), all all-star tribute to Cash featuring the biggest names in rock, country, and blues.  Now comes the granddaddy of them all – The Complete Columbia Album Collection, featuring 59 albums, spread over 63 CDs – spanning the years 1958-1990.  Many of these albums have never been released on CD and have been out of print for decades.

“It Was Jesus” sounds like a hybrid of “Big River” and “Straight A’s in Love” – with the same chunka chunka rhythm.  One of the appeals of signing with Columbia records was that he would be able to record the hymns and gospel tunes that were near and dear to his heart.  “Transfusion Blues,” from Now There Was a Song, is the original studio version of what would become “Cocaine Blues” – the song that got the best response from the rowdy audience of convicts at Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

There’s so many treasures in this vast collection, like the entire album he recorded with his future bride, June, and her family, The Carter Family as Keep On the Sunny Side.  “When the Roses Bloom Again” is a fine example of the signature harmonies that were passed down from many generations.  Cash never shied away from controversial topics, he did an entire album titled Bitter Tears: Johnny Cash Sings the Ballad of the American Indian.  This isn’t some watered-down attempt to cash in on some cultural trend.  He sounds downright angry on “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow,” which addresses all the promises the US gave the Native Americans – promises which were all broken again and again.

Cash was one of the world’s greatest storytellers.  An excellent example was Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.”  With it’s verses, which don’t always rhyme, it comes off more like a conversation.  “I ain’ sayin’ I beat the devil / but I drank his beer for nothin’ / and then I stole his song.”

Cash also recorded an excellent collection called The Johnny Cash Children’s Album – but he didn’t really need to change his style much.  His excellent tale-telling is something that everyone can enjoy.  Including “Tiger Whitehead,” talk of the legendary bear trapper.

“Texas-1947” is one of many train-story songs that were his favorite from Look at Them Beans. Things started to get a little slicker by the mid-Seventies – yet he imparts a weariness that is merely implied in the Stones’ original of “No Expectations,” which he recorded for Gone Girl in 1978.

Friends and family would never be more than an arms-length away for Cash, and he revisits his roots several times.  The rousing live rendition of the Hank Williams’ nugget “I Saw the Light,” features old buddies Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins from The Survivors.

Even late in his tenure with Columbia, Cash was still singing of the underdog, championing the fallen on his final single for the label, “They Killed Him.”  No other performer had little trouble saying, oftentimes bluntly, what we all needed to hear – in this case dealing with Ghandi, MLK, and Jesus – plus, a nice touch adding a children’s choir at the end.

It might seem like Johnny Cash sang about the same topics over and over.  But, if there’s one thing this collection makes perfectly clear – Cash’s scope was wide.

Johnny Cash was truly an original – insanely talented, yet firmly grounded in a way that connected him with the average person.  The Complete Columbia Album Collection shows off his many talents.  –Tony Peters