Reissue collections and compilations are once again in the Compact Capsules spotlight this week. We begin with a look at two superb collections from the late king couple of country music, Johnny and June Carter Cash. From there it’s onto several excellent collections from arguably one of the finest reissue labels going in the London, England-based Ace Records. Keeping with the season, one very appropriate Ace compilation focuses on songs thoroughly immersed in the goblins, ghouls and ghosts. In other words, a Halloween-themed sampler of vintage rockers that is a real kicker. Let’s get to it.
Add the brand new four-disc box set titled The Legend (Columbia/Legacy Recordings C4K 92802) to what is a growing number of Johnny Cash compilations. Released in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Cash’s first single in 1955, The Legend is a career-spanning box set that comes in both deluxe and standard editions. First the facts. Each edition features 104 songs of which seven are previously unreleased. There’s also complete discographical information, rare photos, and a new biographical essay from writer Patrick Carr who penned the 1997 book Cash: The Autobiography. The standard edition is packaged as a 5×10 inch display book containing a booklet. The beautiful, yet pricey, limited edition deluxe set takes things up a number of notches. It is packaged as a commemorative coffee table-size set containing a 12×16 book with hundreds of rare and unseen photographs, an exclusive 12×16 lithograph of Cash by Texas artist Marc Burckhardt, a bonus DVD of the 1980 CBS-TV special “Johnny Cash: The First 25 Years,” and a bonus CD titled “Johnny Cash On the Air” which captures his 1954 radio debut for Memphis radio station KWEM’s “Mid-South Country Frolics” program.
Each of the four discs are thematic and arranged in chronological order. Disc one is titled “Win, Place and Show: The Hits” and features 27 tracks from the 1956 – 1979 time period each of which hit one of the top three spots in the country & western music charts. It is all killer and no filler. “Old Favorites and New” is the title of disc two of the set. It features 27 singles and album tracks from 1955 to 1994 beginning with that first single for Sun Records, “Cry, Cry, Cry”. From there it is onto such fan favorites from Cash’s Sun, Columbia, and Mercury years as “I Walk the Line”, “Get Rhythm”, “I Still Miss Someone”, “I Got Stripes”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”, and “Cocaine Blues”. Disc three carries the title “The Great American Songbook” and presents 26 songs recorded between 1955 and 1980 by Cash with the emphasis on folk, blues, hillbilly, and standards. The final disc of the set is “Family and Friends.” Containing 24 songs from the 1962 to 2002 period, it features The Man In Black with a who’s who of special guests. They include the Carter Family, wife June Carter Cash, Bob Dylan, U2, brother Tommy Cash, Elvis Costello, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Charles, Rodney Crowell, Marty Stuart, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Of special note is the final track, the previously unreleased “It Takes One To Know Me”, created from a 1977 demo by Johnny and June and finished in November 2004 by Carlene Carter (its songwriter), John Carter Cash and his wife Laura. About the only disappointing part of The Legend is that it does not contain any tracks from Cash’s latter years American Recordings work with producer Rick Rubin. Folks out there who already own either of the two prior Columbia/Legacy Essential Johnny Cash collections may want to do a double take as there is significant overlap between those and this latest retrospective. For those devoid of any Cash in their collection, the standard edition of The Legend is an excellent place to start while those with deep pockets may want to check out the deluxe route.
Also new is the first comprehensive study of the recording legacy of June Carter Cash. Keep On The Sunny Side – Her Life In Music (Columbia/Legacy C2K 90908) is a 40-song collection spread over two discs that takes the listener from a 1939 live performance over border radio blaster XERA with the Original Carter Family when June was all of nine years old through her 2003 Grammy-award winning album Wildwood Flower. Daughter of the legendary Maybelle Carter, probably one of the biggest crimes in the country reissue market since the dawning the CD age has been the lack of a collection focusing on an artist as important as June Carter Cash. A professional recording career that lasted some 60-plus years, blame the void in part on a hodge-podge of singles, duets on the records of husband’s Carl Smith and Johnny Cash, recordings with the Carter Family in their various configurations, and what was only a smattering of solo recordings two of which were made in the last five years of her life. In other words, way too many sources. To the rescue comes heavy hitter Legacy Recordings who do the Carter-Cash legacy proud with Keep On The Sunny Side. Compared to the other ladies in the Carter Family fold, June was different. You can hear it as far back as those old Carter Family tracks. Whereas her mom, aunts and sisters sang in a plain-voiced style, June seemed to always bring a spit and fire kind of vivacity to her performances that set her apart from the rest of the clan. The fast-moving and highly enjoyable Keep On The Sunny Side is filled with moments that we’ll describe simply as total June. We’re talking everything from early feisty stuff like “Root, Hog, or Die” with the Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle, hillbilly hijinks with Homer & Jethro on tunes like “Country Girl” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, honky tonkers chock full verve ala early solo singles “Juke Box Blues” and “No Swallerin’ Place”, and well-known numbers like “Ring of Fire”, “Keep On the Sunny Side”, and “Jackson” the latter of which finds her trading verses with husband Johnny Cash. As a special bonus, the collection includes the entirety of June’s first solo LP from 1975 titled Appalachian Pride. Featuring an essay written by author/journalist Holly George-Warren and plenty of great old photos, Keep On The Sunny Side is a superb, not to mention overdue, package that comes highly recommended.
Ace Records of London continues to dish out some great reissue collections covering the bases from vintage rock and roll to garage rock to pop to honky tonk. The various artists collection These Ghoulish Things: Horror Hits For Hallowe’en (Ace CDCHD 1070) comes just in time to entertain trick treaters on the eve of October 31. The 28-track collection features a nifty batch of 1950s and 60s rock and rollers mired in the ghoulish spirit of the season. It probably comes as little surprise that Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” leads the charge. It’s the rest of the collection, however, that makes this set the perfect Halloween primer with “Screamin’ Ball (At Dracula Hall)” from The Duponts, “Drac’s Back” from Billy De Marco & Count Dracula, “The Mummy’s Ball” from The Verdicts, “Frankenstein’s Den” from The Hollywood Flames, “Spooksville” from The Nu-Trends and “The Munsters Theme” from Milton DeLugg & Orchestra just a sampling.
For garage fanatics, search no further than the compilation Uptight Tonight: The Ultimate 60s Garage Collection (Ace/Big Beat CDWIKD 275) for a big gulp of 1960s big beat to satisfy the senses. Featuring 26 pounders, it combines the familiar (“Liar Liar” from The Castaways, “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine”, Psychotic Reaction” from Count Five, “Pushin’ Too Hard” The Seeds) with the unfamiliar (the ultimate catch is the extremely rare “Boy, What’ll You Do Then” from Denise & Company) for what on the whole is a much recommended extrasensory affair that rivals the legendary Nuggets! collection.
The phrase “wall of sound” comes up quite often when talk turns to songs produced by Phil Spector. The compilation Phil’s Spectre II: Another Wall of Soundalikes (Ace CDCHD 1059) presents 24 masterful examples from the legendary producer. It’s a variety store mix as varied as Spector’s many studio touches. It takes the listener from the big arrangement of “Nite Owl” from The Righteous Brothers and the hitmaker sound of Mary Wells’ “One Block From Heaven” to the heavy-fisted soul shake of Joe South’s “Don’t You Be Ashamed (To Call My Name)” with stops in between including The Beach Boys (“I Do”), Dobie Gray (“No Room to Cry”), Connie Stevens (“A Girl Never Know” which is trademark Spector), and the Four Tops (“Wonderful Baby”).
All it took was one song to catapult honky tonker Red Sovine into legend status. It was the tune “Teddy Bear” sung in narrative style by Sovine. Released in 1976, it took all of six weeks to shoot to the top of the country charts and garner Sovine his best selling single. Yet, as the collection Honky Tonks, Truckers & Tears (Ace CDCHD 1052) clearly attests there was plenty more to this C&W artist. Sometimes called the “The King of the Narrations,” Sovine made his mark first as a hillbilly rocker (“Why Baby Why”), then as a king of the truckin’ songs (“Freightliner Fever”, “Phantom 309”), and of course with those story songs many of a comedic nature (“Little Rosa” on which he adopts an out of character Italian accent takes the cake). The 24 track Honky Tonks, Truckers & Tears is a well-rounded collection that presents the many sides of the Sovine performing persona with a concentration on his country chart hits for Starday Records. For Sovine fans, it is must-have goods. (Information: Legacy Recordings, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, or www.legacyrecordings.com; Ace Records, 42-50 Steele Road, London NW10 7AS, UK, or www.acerecords.co.uk)
(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].)