Reviews by - Lindsay Planer

This week As The Disc Spins has two new titles from one of country music's old school bad boys -- Johnny Cash -- including a preview of the three-disc Legacy Edition of Johnny Cash At San Quentin.

Johnny Cash -- Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 (Columbia/Legacy)

This hour-long DVD contains a slightly condensed version of a typical early '70s Johnny Cash stage show that originally aired on Danish television in 1971. Folks not fortunate enough to have caught the late, great Johnny Cash review, now have a chance to bring his entire gang into their living rooms. Cash and company are backed by the Tennessee Three and joined on stage at various times by fellow rock 'n' roll revolutionary Carl Perkins ("Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox"), The Statler Brothers ("Bed Of Roses" and "Flowers On The Wall")  and The Carter Family: Maybelle, Anita, Helen and June ("Song To Mama").

With his formidable musical presence -- already well into its second decade -- Cash's career had recently undergone a multi-media makeover. By the late '60s, he'd overcome a well-documented bout with pills, returned to the top 40 pop charts and was fresh from a three-year run hosting his own weekly network musical/variety hour.

His solos spots provide a back-catalogue 'best of', beginning with his inimitable retelling of the ballad of "A Boy Named Sue," followed by the first of three Kris Kristofferson covers "Sunday Morning Comin' Down." Other Cash favorites scattered throughout include "I Walk The Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Guess Things Happen That Way," "Man In Black," and the second of the Kristofferson compositions, "Me & Bobby McGee."

June and Johnny join forces in several standout selections. Up first is a feel-good remake of The Lovin' Spoonful's "Darlin' Companion" and a heartfelt medley featuring Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" -- which had recently scored the pair a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Duo -- along with the final Kristofferson tune, "Help Me Make It Through The Night." The finale brings all of the participants together for the gospel-flavored suite of "No Need To Worry," "Rock Of Ages," and "Children, Go When I Send Thee."

The audio and visual quality is uniformly excellent. The images are considerably more crisp than most 35 year old TV shows and the sound is well balanced and mixed in mono.

Johnny Cash -- At San Quentin:Legacy Edition (Legacy/Columbia)

Two words that I like to see behind the name of any LP reissue are: Legacy Edition. And you’d be hard pressed to find a collection any more deserving of that honor than Johnny Cash's infamous At San Quentin (1969). Less than five months after the concert was held -- February 24, 1969 in San Quentin Prison -- the album climbed to the top of the charts and stayed there for a month.

Fast-forward to 2000 and an Expanded Edition is issued that ups the original running order to a stellar 18 songs. Still, in the vaults remained nearly a half-hour more from the concert -- including spots by the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins. For the first time anywhere, the entire concert is being offered for those who dare to hear it. There are no overdubs and nothing has been sanitized. This is The Man In Black, live in front of several thousand inmates. Anything could have happened and -- if this three-disc set is any indication -- lots did.

The two audio CDs present every fret-pickin' note of the complete 90-plus minute set --  from Carl Perkins' hard-drivin' rockabilly licks on "Blue Suede Shoes" through to the full ensemble backing Cash on a reprised medley of "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk The Line," "Ring Of Fire" and a rousing rendition of "The Rebel -- Johnny Yuma." As anyone who has ever heard a note of  these recordings will attest, there is a palpable edginess absorbed by the music as it chugs along. But what is probably most evident when listening to the entire show -- in proper context and sequence, the way it went down -- is the camaraderie and respect the inmates have for Cash. Almost, like a convict's prodigal son.

June Carter's razor-sharp wit is finely honed as she chides the prisoners to "sit back, relax and get yo' hands outta each others' pockets …" before launching the Carter Family into a spirited reading of Tom Paxton's folk standard "Last Thing On My Mind" and a high and lonesome take of their own trademark "Wildwood Flower." Of course at the core of the festivities is Johnny Cash. Whether it is the lack of drugs coursing through his veins, a recent religious revelation or simply being in good shape, Cash rides the audience's rowdy and often aggressive energy like a wild bronco.

His voice personifies both the prisoner and the angel in the listener during the newly-restored coupling of "Long Black Veil" and the prisoner-requested "Give My Love To Rose." Equally incendiary are the recently unearthed revisitations of "Orange Blossom Special," "Blistered," and joined by June for the audience suggested "Jackson". Also reinstated are the Statler Brothers' staples "Flowers On The Wall" and "Less Of Me," as well as the Carter Family's spot-on take of "Break My Mind," and Carl Perkins' own originals "Restless" and "The Outside Looking In."  

The accompanying DVD contains the Johnny Cash In San Quentin documentary made at the concert by the British-based Granada-TV [aka ITV]. Interspersed are stark and, at times harrowing, interviews with the prisoners and guards. Actually, they don't have to say very much as their hollow eyes do most of the talking. Cash's on-stage persona is riveting to watch. The music is highlighted by footage of the aforementioned "Orange Blossom Special," with Cash showing off his multi-harmonica trickery. However, within moments he shifts from those lighthearted antics to the somber solitude of "San Quentin". He not only brings down the house in both extremes, but provides a context and insight that reiterates his artistic greatness.

Johnny Cash At San Quentin: Legacy Edition is a recommended -- if not required -- piece of musical Americana.

Various Artists -- Johnny Cash:Roots and Branches (Hip-O/UMe)

As prolific a songwriter as Johnny Cash was, he became equally well-known for superlative interpretations of other artist's work. The cover of this 16-song anthology probably says it best, proclaiming "artists, songs and recordings that inspired the legend of Johnny Cash."

That doesn't mean that the Man In Black did remakes of all these tunes. In fact, before scoring hits of his own, it was bluegrass legend Ernest Tubb's version of "So Doggone Lonesome" that became one of the first Cash compositions to be remade by a well-known performer. He also penned Roy Orbison's seminal rockabilly offering "You're My Baby," as well as Warren Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Ruby," during his early tenure at the legendary Sun Records. The inclusion of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's gospel rave-up "There Are Strange Things Happenin' Every Day," represents the importance that Tharpe's sound had on Cash. In fact, it was revealed after his death that Tharpe may well have been Cash's favorite singer.

The remaining titles primarily have more specific ties to Cash's voluminous songbook. Family member Anita Carter's "Love's Ring Of Fire," actually predates Cash's "Ring Of Fire," while Peter LaFarge's folk epic "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" was the catalyst for Cash's infamous long player Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian (1964). And although the song's retain the name, Johnny & June's hot steppin' take of "Jackson," definitely lifted it's spirit from the 1963 Kingston Trio version heard here.

Somewhat more predictable -- yet no less enjoyable -- are Roy Hogsed's original 'hit' of "Cocaine Blues," Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter," and Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Comin' Down." On the flipside, conspicuously MIA is any mention of Cash's sole Top Ten Pop entry -- his humorous overhaul of Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." That caveat aside, Johnny Cash: Roots & Branches is recommended for anyone captivated by the genesis of musical Americana and its unquestionably influential ancestry.

Lindsay Planer is a freelance journalist and technical producer at WBT AM/FM in Charlotte, NC. He is a regular contributor to All Music Guide, CrutchfieldAdvisor.com and Gaston Gazette. Comments and questions can be sent to <asthediscspins@earthlink.net>.


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