Johnny Cash, more than any other singer/songwriter that has ever lived, deserves the tag legend. Cash, an original in a world of imitators, garnered respect from musicians of all stripes and had an influence on nearly every genre of music. The soul rattling baritone, the canyon deep stare, the dog sly grin, the wicked sense of humor, all these things made the 'Man in Black' a giant in Nashville and beyond. The Legend collects 104 of Cash's recordings on four CDs.
Whether he was cutting traditional folk songs ("The Wreck Of The Old 97," "The Streets Of Laredo") or numbers by Hank Williams and Bob Dylan ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Forever Young"), Cash sounded like no other. Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" becomes a haunting tale of regret and surrender when sifted through Cash's husky voice. Tracks like "Goodnight Irene" and the controversial "Cocaine Blues" may have come from the blues world, but Cash turned them into country songs. The latter track, recorded live at Folsom Prison in 1968, rings with the raw emotion of a man who knew all too well about addiction.
From the boom-chicka-boom of such Cash classics as "Big River" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," to witty hits "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece At Time," The Legend exposes all sides of the 'Man in Black.' The Christian side of Cash shows up on "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)," performed here with the Carter Family, and "If I Were A Carpenter," a duet with wife June Carter Cash. The flesh side of Cash is present on the tormented "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" and "Folsom Prison Blues," on which Cash sings the famous line: "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."
Producer Gregg Geller searched through hundreds of tapes to come up with seven unreleased tracks, including the rollicking "Doin' My Time " and a dusty-throated version of "I've Been Working On The Railroad." Rodney Crowell's "I'm Never Gonna Roam Again" and Billy Joe Shaver's "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ" are standout cuts among the unreleased tracks. "Ring Of Fire," "Highwayman," "Man In Black," "I Still Miss Someone," along with later recordings "Tears In The Holston River" and "September When It Comes," are just a few highlights on a collection with far too many to mention.
The set includes a nicely designed booklet with dozens of photos, a lengthy essay from Patrick Carr and extensive song credits. The Legend is arguably the best Johnny Cash retrospective ever assembled.
By Todd Sterling