Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. 2: From Memphis to Hollywood

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Johnny Cash
Bootleg Vol. 2: From Memphis to Hollywood
Columbia/Legacy
[Rating: 4 stars]

One of our favorite odd-ball musical pairings has to be the unlikely brotherhood between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. A bond built on mutual admiration, Dylan influenced Cash to expand his songwriting and Cash in turn can take some of the credit for Dylan’s explorations of country music.

Dylan’s Bootleg Series is a groundbreaking collection that finds the artist taking control of his unreleased catalog to create illuminating collections that shed light on particularly interesting periods of his music-making. The recent inauguration of Johnny Cash’s own Bootleg recordings is serving much the same purpose, and if you enjoyed Cash’s first Bootleg release, you are in for a treat with this latest offering.

Cash’s music experienced a late renaissance thanks to the artist’s American Recordings collaborations with producer Rick Rubin and the Joaquin-Phoenix-starring-biopic Walk The Line. As a result, the Johnny Cash story is a surprisingly familiar one. However, the recordings on From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. 2 bring the drama of Cash’s early fame as a Sun Records star, through his first decade of recording for Columbia, to vivid, visceral life. It seems no one can tell Cash’s story as well as the man and his music can, and wading through the rarities and remainders in this massive, nearly-sixty-track set, one can sense both the thrill and the foreboding that found The Man in Black rising to national prominence while at the same time coming undone under the influence of dangerous addictions and life in the spotlight.

Volume 2 covers a decade-and-a-half of Cash’s career, and just as Cash’s songs are full of characters and tales, this set spins a story of its own through a dramatic interweaving of demo recordings, unheard of tracks and live cuts. The first disc even includes advertising spots that find Cash shilling air conditioners for Home Equipment Company during the fifteen-minute live radio broadcast that opens the collection.

Disc 1 begins with Cash’s early days at Sun and it presents a treasure trove of never-before-heard, new-found recordings. Many of the cuts were discovered at the artist’s House of Cash estate and recording studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and listening to the still-evolving, young Cash sing and play on these early tapes lends a haunting counterpoint to the singer-songwriter’s bigger-than-life legend.

The second disc highlights Cash’s career after leaving Sun Records, and these songs offer up ample evidence of his evolution as a songwriter. While there is a hardscrabble, earnest poetry to Cash’s earliest efforts, a song like “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” recorded in 1965, finds Cash – the songsmith – catching lightning. Here, “Hardin” plays out as a guitar/vocal demo that spins a story about Western outlaw John Wesley Hardin with such sophisticated detailing, musicality and confidence that one might be hard-pressed to believe it’s by the same artist that is heard on the early recordings, and that’s where the real value of this collection lies.

From Memphis To Hollywood includes 16 never-issued recordings and 11 singles and 11 outtakes that are making their digital debut, but the success of the set is its contextualizing and clarifying of Cash’s origin story; a tale that found the son of a poor cotton farmer transformed into a legend, simply known as The Man in Black.

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