Album Details

Country, Progressive Country, Country-Pop, Rockabilly, Traditional Country

Album Review

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, Rovi

Track Listing

  1. Hey Porter
  2. Cry Cry Cry
  3. Folsom Prison Blues
  4. Luther Played the Boogie
  5. Get Rhythm
  6. I Walk the Line
  7. Home of the Blues
  8. Give My Love to Rose
  9. Rock Island Line
  10. Doin' My Time
  11. Big River
  12. Ballad of a Teenage Queen
  13. Guess Things Happen That Way
  14. The Ways of a Woman in Love
  15. Thanks a Lot
  16. Oh, What a Dream
  17. What Do I Care
  18. All over Again
  19. I Still Miss Someone
  20. I'd Just Be Fool Enough (To Fall)
  21. Walking the Blues
  22. Frankie's Man Johnny
  23. Tennessee Flat Top Box
  24. Sing It Pretty, Sue
  25. Pickin' Time
  26. Five Feet High and Rising
  27. The Old Account
  28. Peace in the Valley
  29. Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
  30. Don't Take Your Guns to Town
  31. The Ballad of Boot Hill
  32. The Rebel - Johnny Yuma
  33. The Big Battle
  34. When the Roses Bloom Again
  35. The Ballad of Ira Hayes
  36. The Legend of John Henry's Hammer
  37. Dark as a Dungeon
  38. Long Black Veil
  39. I Got Stripes
  40. 25 Minutes to Go
  41. The Wall
  42. Busted
  43. Bad News
  44. Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog
  45. Orange Blossom Special
  46. Ring of Fire
  47. Understand Your Man
  48. Jackson
  49. Blistered
  50. See Ruby Fall
  51. Cisco Clifton's Fillin' Station
  52. Daddy Sang Bass
  53. Folsom Prison Blues [Live]
  54. Cocaine Blues [Live]
  55. San Quentin [#2][Live]
  56. A Boy Named Sue [Live]
  57. Wanted Man
  58. Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues
  59. Man in Black
  60. What Is Truth?
  61. Flesh and Blood
  62. Sunday Morning Coming Down
  63. Oney
  64. One Piece at a Time
  65. Hit the Road and Go
  66. Rockabilly Blues (Texas 1955)
  67. I Will Rock and Roll With You
  68. No Expectations
  69. (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
  70. Bull Rider
  71. Highway Patrolman
  72. After the Ball
  73. Without Love
  74. The Last Time
  75. I'm Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick on My Old Guitar