Recent releases from the Legacy imprint of Sony Music are in the Compact Capsules spotlight this week. For the unfamiliar out there, the Legacy Recordings division of Sony Music is one of the leading reissue houses in the world, let alone the U.S. It has at its disposal an enormous archive of recordings housed in the Columbia, Epic and associated labels’ vaults, including Philadelphia International, OKeh, ARC, Vocalion, and Brunswick, as well as such acquired imprints as CTI, Ode and more. Legacy releases typically combine state-of-the-art remastering technology with comprehensive liner notes, track information and rare and historic photos. The hallmark of the Legacy label has been its Essential series which are artist retrospective type collections, oft-times career spanning and typically multi-disc sets. They offer a one-stop shop of sorts for those looking to seek out a representative sampling of an artists’ recording career. The latest entries in the Essential series are career-spanning retrospectives from Roy Orbison, country crooner George Jones, and T Bone Burnett. Before we give those the capsule treatment, we’ll turn to another new Legacy release focusing on a collection of previously unreleased, solo recordings from The Man In Black, Johnny Cash.
Seems as if ever since Johnny Cash passed in September of 2003, a few months doesn’t go by without a new Cash collection finding its way into the retail market. Whereas it was Rick Rubin via his American Recordings series during the decade preceding his death that introduced many to the bare bones solo side of the Cash recording persona, the newly released Personal File (Columbia/Legacy 94265) demonstrates that The Man In Black was making solo recordings in a stripped-down fashion long before Mr. Rubin came into the picture. The two-CD set Personal File brings together 49 previously unreleased “home” recordings made by Cash from 1973 to 1982 at his House of Cash studio. The majority of the recordings stem from a one-week period in July of 1973. With nothing but an acoustic guitar and that inimitable voice, it is Cash in all his nakedness putting stamps on songs as only he could. Disc One is predominantly covers, or shall we say favorites, of Mr. Cash. It spans the Louvin Brothers’ classic “When I Stop Dreaming” to “Louisiana Man” from the Kershaw Brothers’ “swamp” archive to John Prine’s “Paradise” to Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan” to nostalgic antiques like the “Missouri Waltz” and “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes”, the latter of which dates back to the 18th century. Disc Two is heavy on original compositions including several numbers which represent some of Cash’s earliest attempts at writing gospel songs. Featuring liner notes by noted writer Greil Marcus, Personal File is one of those recordings that sinks its teeth in slowly, but deeply. Maybe its the frills-free, plainspoken way that Cash rednres these songs, but there is a moving sense of solemnity to this material almost as if you, the listener, are a fly on the wall during something very, very personal.
For many an old school country & western music fan, the buck stops at George Jones. The voice behind some of the greatest C&W songs ever laid down on vinyl, few could plumb the depths of emotion like the Ol’ Possum did during his lengthy heyday. Like the late Cash, Mr. Jones has also been the beneficiary of countless retrospective, greatest hits and anthology collections, a number of which have had the appearance of being put together without much respect for quality. Checking in at 40 tracks spread over two discs, The Essential George Jones (Epic/Legacy 92565) is not one of those “hasty” releases. On the contrary, the career-spanning extravaganza moves from Jones’ early beginnings recording for the Starday label (one of his earliest in 1954’s “No Money In This Deal” and the barn burner from the following year “Why Bay Why”) and Mercury Records (the liquored-up beaut “White Lightnin’ “) to the prime 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s honky tonk nuggets for the United Artists (“She Thinks I Still Care”, “The Race Is On”) and Epic (“The Grand Tour”, “He STopped Loving Her Today”) labels to his late 1990s resurgence with Elektra Records (“Choices” from 1999). Unlike many a country artist who hit their stride in the ’60s or ’70s, Jones, despite many personal woes, never really fell out of favor with country music fans. Blame that on a voice which never failed him and the unique ability to bring that little something extra to a song be it a great one or a piece of shit. No doubt the Jones fans out there already have much of the material comprising The Essential George Jones. Few those remiss in adding some Possum to the C&W section of the collection, The Essential George Jones is exactly that.
Speaking of being remiss, it is exactly what I was prior to The Essential Roy Orbison (Epic/Legacy 90696) arriving in the mailbox. Sure I was an admirer and plenty familiar with the great songs of the shades-wearing singing great, but I just never got around to owning any of his records. Such remiss on this scribe’s part is corrected in a hurry thanks to this new multiple disc, 40-track collection. From “Ooby Dooby” from 1956 to “Claudette” from 1997, The Essential Roy Orbison features works from Orbison’s years with the Sun, Monument, MGM and Virgin to go with soundtrack-only recordings and those from his own Orbison Records imprints. The tree top stuff is all here, and then some.
Over his lengthy career, T Bone Burnett more than anything has been known for his work as a producer for a wide range of artists from Elvis Costello to Tony Bennett to the Counting Crows to Alison Krauss to Ralph Stanley and composer with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack his crowning moment. So great has his notoriety on the production front been that it has overshadowed his own recording career which he effectively put on the backburner in the early 1990s (and where it has remained until just recently). Burnett’s recording career dates back to the mid 1960s where he felt his oats as a teenaged garage rocker and fledgling producer in his native Fort Worth. Not until he moved to L.A. and then hooked up with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review did things began to turn up. First there was the Alpha Band in 1976 and then onto a slew of solo recordings. Spanning 1976 to 1992, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (DMZ/Legacy 93670) (Epic/Legacy 90696) brings together Alpha Band recordings, material from his many solo recordings, and a couple of unreleased tracks for a sum total of meaty 40 cuts of Burnett in a multitude of configurations delivering a menagerie of rock and roots-based sounds. (Legacy Recordings, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, or www.legacyrecordings.com)
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)