The Man in Black's only full-career overview condenses an astonishing 48-year, thousand-plus song discography into one essential disc.
Here's a record that solves a problem in a single stroke. Up to this point, consumers have been forced to buy multiple CDs or ridiculously expensive box sets to hear a representative sample from Johnny Cash's astonishing career. From 1955 to 2003, Cash recorded thousands of songs for Sun, Columbia, Island, and American Recordings. If you were lucky, you could find a single compilation that contained his big three ("Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Ring of Fire") but nothing from his final career phase, where notorious rock producer Rick Rubin treated Cash as something more than a walking jukebox. As a result, Rubin kicked Cash's then moribund career back to life.
There are 21 songs on The Legend of Johnny Cash, sequenced chronologically beginning with "Cry! Cry! Cry!" and ending with the devastating Nine Inch Nails cover "Hurt." If anything, Legend falters in its tendency to favor hits over more sensible selections ("Highwayman" with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings might have been popular but only because it was a stunt) and for perhaps an over-emphasis on the later American Recordings work.
But, goodness gracious, this is an excellent way to start with Cash, who seems to tower over American music more and more each year. The dead-simple "boom chicka boom" sound, bedrock for the Sun singles ("Hey Porter"), was a perfect frame for Cash's Godlike voice. Listen to the elemental stomp and mythmaking of "Big River." Try to wrap your mind around the vision of "Folsom Prison Blues" -- with its original gangster couplet "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" and its empathy with the jailed. Even the novelties ("A Boy Named Sue," "One Piece at a Time") hold up.
And what of the work with Rubin? It adds a fascinating layer, that's for sure, and it was more than just wringing the last bit of juice out of an icon. Cash was so deep that it seems as if he could have made surprising, essential music forever. Listening to The Legend of Johnny Cash, you'll be hard-pressed to think he didn't. -- Werner Trieschmann