The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983

by: Johnny Cash

Assembling a comprehensive multi-disc Johnny Cash collection is a difficult task for a variety of reasons, not the least of it being the sheer number of records Cash put out in the '60s and '70s. Counting duets, he had over 130 charting singles, which is far too much for the average box set, plus those singles don't necessarily tell the full story of Cash the recording artist, since he was a prolific album artist, as well. Then, there's the sheer variety of what he recorded -- rockabilly, folk tunes, tales of gunslingers and Indians, scores of novelty numbers, gospel, Americana kitsch, train songs, pop, and straight-ahead country, he tried it all, giving it all his own unique stamp, distinguished by his booming voice and the distinctive two-step muted rhythm picked out by his guitarist, Luther Perkins. In other words, there is a lot of material to choose from, and while it all sounds similar -- in that it all sounds like Johnny Cash music -- there are so many themes and styles, it's difficult to distill it down to the essentials, as Columbia/Legacy's 1992 triple-disc box set The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 attempts to do. Spanning 75 tracks, this takes in nearly three decades of Cash's career, starting at Sun and ending when Cash left the label in the mid-'80s. It hits all the big, iconic hits -- "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," "Guess Things Happen That Way," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "I Got Stripes," "Ring of Fire," "Daddy Sang Bass," "A Boy Named Sue" -- but makes no pretense of containing all the hits, and in fact leaves many other hit singles behind, not to mention album tracks. There really isn't anything big missing -- after all, all but one song from the 1967 Columbia Greatest Hits is here -- but what makes a box set great is the quality of the songs that aren't the hits, and here Essential is a bit wobbly. It's hurt by the compilers' desire to touch upon every style Cash performed, sometimes to the detriment of overall listenability -- and that listenability is also hurt by the sequencing, which is just slightly non-chronological ("Don't Take Your Guns to Town," his first Columbia single, is saved for the second disc opener, long after we're already in Columbia territory; on the second disc, 1965's "Orange Blossom Special" is followed by 1963's "Ring of Fire"), which hampers the momentum in subtle, but noticeable ways. Then, there's the song selection. While there's nothing bad here (although the novelty numbers or topical songs may wear on some listener's nerves), apart from the aforementioned big hits -- along with other iconic songs like "The Rebel -- Johnny Yuma," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," and "Cocaine Blues" -- it's hard not to feel that for every merely good song here, there's something better that could have been included instead, particularly because there are indeed many great tracks left behind. These are the things that prevent this box from being one of the great country box sets -- compare it to Merle Haggard's Down Every Road, for instance, a set that captures a complex figure in all of his glory -- and keep it from being as definitive as it seems. As a basic library piece, it's pretty good -- after all, it has all the basics from Sun and Columbia in one place -- but given its idiosyncrasies, it's not an ideal introduction, and it also shouldn't be seen as a one-stop summary of everything worthy Johnny Cash did at Sun and Columbia. It is a good sampler of what he did at those two labels, but once you know the lay of the land, other compilations and proper albums are easier to listen to and more enjoyable. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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