If you were asked to list 10 Johnny Cash songs, the 10 you’d come up with probably wouldn’t be on The Legend of Johnny Cash Vol II. And inevitably this collection contains none of my favourites – but that’s always the way when someone tries to pick 20 songs from career that spanned decades of intensive recording.
All the very well known ones (I Walk The Line, Ring of Fire, Boy Named Sue etc) are on Volume 1 in this series, along with some of the critically acclaimed covers from the American Recordings series (One, Personal Jesus). This is the second bite of the cherry, and laudably it tries to give a snapshot of Cash’s broad career.
Starting out with examples of his ’50s country ballads recorded for the legendary Sun label, like the opener, There You Go, with their hypnotic repetitive guitar and rather echoey, harsh vocal tone, it moves on to a clutch of story songs from the late ’50s and ’60s, such as the soft and heartfelt Don’t Take Your Guns To Town and the slightly hokey and somewhat tedious Long Black Veil. Anyone looking for a good Cash murder ballad should seek out Delia’s Gone instead.
There’s some quirky stuff – Daddy Sang Bass, and Cash’s strange take on It Ain’t Me Babe featuring a jaunty Mariachi-band accompaniment, both of which always bring a smile to my face but are probably not what Cash would like to be remembered for – and the interesting pairing of his duet with Waylon Jennings on The Night Hank Williams Came To Town (rather corny arrangement for modern tastes) alongside That Old Wheel, performed with Hank Williams Jr.
There’s also another outing for the well-known duet with Dylan on Girl From The North Country which is best described as singular. They may have been giants in their own fields, but their voices don’t mix well.
As a chronological record it rather jumps the ’70s and ’80s, and dwells heavily on more of his ’90s and ’00s covers with Rick Rubin. If anyone has somehow managed to survive the last decade without hearing one of these, they will be a revelation.
Cash’s peculiar gift was to take any song and make it uniquely his, thanks in part to his distinctive gravely timbre, but also to his easy, discursive style of delivery and tendency to take histrionic or rapid songs and slow them right down. Heaven knows, he can even make a Sting song sound good! Everything from this period has a certain gravitas, and it’s certainly a wise move to feature this more familiar area prominently on a collection designed for the casual listener.