The musical treasures left behind by Johnny Cash at the House Of Cash estate in Hendersonville, Tennessee, continue to provide insight into his character as an American music icon – perhaps the American music icon. The rich backwoods archive first bore fruit on Columbia/Legacy nearly five years ago, with the release of Personal File aka Bootleg Vol. 1, a fascinating double-CD collection of 49 privately recorded, intimate solo performances dating from 1973 to 1982.
From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Volume 2 continues the series, as compilation producer Gregg Geller focuses on the dawning of Johnny Cash’s recording career at Sun Records in Memphis from late 1954 to late ’57 (on CD One), into his first decade at Columbia Records in Nashville, from 1958 to 1969 (on CD Two). Bootleg Vol. 2 will be available at all physical and digital retail outlets starting February 22, 2011, through Columbia/Legacy, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.
Putting the Bootleg Vol. 2 collection in historical perspective is a carefully detailed essay written by Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (DaCapo Press, 2000), and other titles. Kahn also contributes to National Public Radio.
The trove of archival material on Bootleg Vol. 2 begins with a 15-minute live radio broadcast from KWEM in Memphis, hosted by Johnny Cash, who worked for Home Equipment Company, the show’s sponsor right across the street from the radio station. The date was Saturday, May 21, 1955, in the same month that Cash recorded his first Sun single, “Cry! Cry! Cry!” b/w “Hey Porter.” In addition to his lively palaver, Cash and the Tennessee Two – guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant – performed a handful of tunes, including the honky tonk “Wide Open Road,” a cover of “One More Ride” (from the Sons Of the Pioneers), the gospel “Belshazzar,” and the guitar showpiece, “Luther’s Boogie.” The broadcast is followed by a one minute spot advertising an upcoming show at the Overton Park Shell, starring Webb Pierce, Red Sovine, Elvis Presley, Cash, and other country acts.
CD One continues with a dozen historically-significant, pre-Sun demos by Cash, 11 of them previously unreleased. These rare home-recorded demos served as blueprints to such enduring Cash originals as “I Walk The Line,” “Get Rhythm” and “Country Boy,” and provide new insight into Cash’s songwriting. Two of these demos would soon turn into rockabilly hits for Roy Orbison (“You’re My Baby”) and Warren Smith (“Rock And Roll Ruby”).
Under the heading Sun Rarities are seven outtakes produced between late 1954 and late 1957 by Sam Phillips and Jack Clement. In addition to familiar Cash titles (“Big River,” “Wide Open Road”), there are covers of tunes by Jimmy Rodgers (“Brakeman’s Blues”), Marty Robbins (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying”), and Lead Belly (“Goodnight Irene”), an indication of Cash’s abiding interest and love for the burgeoning folk music movement, whose embrace of him was a hallmark of his career. CD One concludes with two final demos, “Restless Kid” (later recorded by Ricky Nelson), and “It’s All Over.”
The 25 tracks on CD Two span Cash’s first 11 years at Columbia Records; he was ultimately with the label for 28 years, through 1986. This disc presents a fresh gathering of Columbia non-album singles, outtakes, and B-sides being released digitally for the first time in the U.S. (11 of them previously unreleased in the U.S.).
The move to Columbia also meant a move to Los Angeles for Cash and his family as he developed a taste for film and television work, both as a songwriter and as an actor. In the Golden Age of TV westerns and movies, Cash was a natural. His larger-than-life presence boosted the popularity of the gunfighter ballads and Americana tales that became a pop music genre at the end of the 1950s and into the ’60s, exemplified by such titles as “Restless Kid,” “Johnny Yuma Theme,” and “Hardin Wouldn’t Run.” Another example is “Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a spoken-sung collaboration with Lorne Greene, better known as Bonanza TV patriarch Ben Cartwright.
The musical passions of Johnny Cash – from traditional gospel and folk, to Tin Pan Alley and Music Row, among many other sources – were given full rein in 1969, when The Johnny Cash Show became a weekly event on ABC-TV. It is at that point, with the evocative theme of the show’s central feature, “Come Along And Ride This Train,” that Bootleg Vol. 2 concludes.
“To know the tree,” Kahn sums up, “one should begin at the root – so goes an old saying. Yet one is well advised to take in all the branches as well. From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. 2 offers the opportunity to hear Johnny Cash’s earliest performances plus a wealth of unreleased and unfairly forgotten recordings, to grasp his commanding, old-growth legend in full.”