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Long-Awaited Rare Johnny Cash Classics Out Today

The long-awaited Johnny Cash – From Memphis to Hollywood is just out today. As Volume 2 in Sony’s Bootleg Series, following the amazing solo acoustic Personal File box set, it’s a must-own for Cash fans. As with any posthumous release from an icon like Cash, the operative question is whether there’s anything left in the vaults that’s worth releasing and the answer is an enthusiastic yee-ha! The songs that everyone will be salivating over include what sounds like a more or less complete radio show from May of 1955 broadcast over West Memphis, Arkansas’ KWEM and sponsored by a local home remodeling center. This performance with Cash’s Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins on lead guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass) is understandably tinny, but through a good system it sounds better than it must have to Memphis listeners that day. And those who prefer mp3s won’t notice the difference. How does Cash solicit requests? By encouraging listeners to mail them in to the station. And in a characteristic stroke of humility, he even offers to learn the ones he doesn’t know. Listen to Johnny fumble as he reads the commercials, and be prepared to be amazed at how much higher the timbre of his voice is. Part of it may be nerves (this was his live debut on radio), but it’s obvious that at this point in his young career, he hadn’t quite settled on his signature style. Songwise, we get Wide Open Road, One More Mile, a brief Luther Perkins guitar instrumental and a matter-of-fact reading of the requisite “sacred song,” Belshazzar.

The first of these two cds also includes almost two dozen solo demos, some from an unknown session from around the time of the radio show, others recorded at Sun Studios. To call them fascinating doesn’t do them justice. I Walk the Line has Cash doing the first couple of verses an octave higher than usual: he finally goes down into his bass register for the last one. It’s obvious that these songs were for sale to anyone who wanted them, and some people did want them, among them Ricky Nelson and Marty Robbins. There’s a heartfelt When I Think of You, the rockabilly Rock & Roll Ruby, Leave That Junk Alone – a cautionary tale to a drinker which is funny for completely unintentional reasons – along with an absolutely chilling Nashville gothic version of Goodnight Irene, and an eerie western swing shuffle version of Big River (complete with extra verse that didn’t make it onto the original single), which is worth the price of the album alone. By the time he recorded these, in 1957, he’d grown into the Man in Black.

The second cd collects singles, b-sides, demos and rarities, most of them previously unreleased in the US, many of them included on the 1969 More of Old Golden Throat compilation. Five Minutes to Live, from 1960, has a stunningly surreal eeriness, echoed in Shifting, Whispering Sands, a creepy duet with Lorne Greene. Send a Picture of Mother has a Maybelle Carter autoharp solo; One Too Many Mornings beats the Dylan original hands-down. Put the Sugar to Bed, a co-write with Carter, takes an oldtime hillbilly melody and grafts on Bob Johnson’s fuzztone psychedelic guitar to raise the WTF factor. There are a couple of understatedly potent antiwar numbers, the grisly battlefield scenario On the Line and his boyhood friend B.J. Carnahan’s Roll Call, which bombed as a single in 1967, memorializing Vietnam War casualties from their hometown. There’s also a handful of duds which really shouldn’t have seen the light of day again, but those take up barely ten minutes worth of space here. The question is not whether or not there’s more unreleased Johnny Cash out there; it’s whether or not it sounds good enough to make up a Volume 3 to follow this one. Let’s hope there is.

February 22, 2011 - Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , ,

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