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The Definitive Collection: Johnny Cash (1985-1993)

Johnny Cash

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Album Review

Someone please alert the Better Business Bureau: in a clear case of false advertising, Mercury Records is marketing a Johnny Cash CD called The Definitive Collection which is anything but definitive. In 1986, Cash found himself without a record label when Columbia Records decided not to pick up the option on his contract after close to 30 years. Within a year the Man in Black had a new deal with Mercury Records, but like many veteran country acts in the '80s, radio wasn't especially interested in him and Cash's recordings of the period are a frustrating mix of re-recordings of his old hits, and new material pockmarked by overly slick production and engineering that didn't flatter Cash's voice or musical approach. The spirit was still willing within Cash, but he wasn't getting much help, and this collection of material from his brief sojourn with Mercury is often dispiriting stuff. Six of the tunes here were drawn from 1987's Classic Cash, in which Johnny recut 20 of his best-known tunes in honor of his entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame; the new versions of numbers like "I Walk the Line," "Guess Things Happen That Way," "Ring of Fire," and "Cry Cry Cry" are approached in a lean, straightforward fashion, and while Cash handles them like a pro, he doesn't sound especially excited, and the new recordings don't hold a candle to the originals. (Cash also redid some older numbers on his other Mercury sessions, several of which are also included here.) Elsewhere, the selections from Cash's other Mercury albums — Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town, Boom Chicka Boom, Water from the Wells of Home, and The Mystery of Life — tend to reflect their flaws instead of their strengths, though there are a few bright moments, including the nostalgic but rollicking "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town" and the apocalyptic "Goin' by the Book." The fact that the disc is bookended by two songs that didn't even appear on Cash's Mercury recordings is telling — the set leads off with "Highwayman," a single from his collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, and ends with U2's "The Wanderer," with Cash's guest lead vocal giving the song a gravity it sorely needs. As an overview of Cash's years with Mercury, this disc is serviceable but little more. The Definitive Collection? Not by a long shot.

Biography

Born: February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, AR

Genre: Country

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Johnny Cash was one of the most imposing and influential figures in post-World War II country music. With his deep, resonant baritone and spare percussive guitar, he had a basic, distinctive sound. Cash didn't sound like Nashville, nor did he sound like honky tonk or rock & roll. He created his own subgenre, falling halfway between the blunt emotional honesty of folk, the rebelliousness of rock & roll, and the world-weariness of country. Cash's career coincided with the birth of rock &...
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