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Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Album Collection

Grade: A

How do you give a grade to Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Album Collection that is anything less than excellent? It’s like penalizing an overachieving English student for turning in 35 pages instead of 10.

So let’s say this: This gargantuan box set, which includes 63 discs of the Man in Black and retails north of $250, is not for the casual fan. Johnny’s most essential recordings—At Folsom Prison, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue,” and so on—have been anthologized and reissued in myriad ways over the years and are readily available in CD or digital form. There’s no need to tell you how perfect “Jackson” is or attempt to explain Johnny’s towering influence on country music, because if anyone deserves to have the “icon” description next to his name, it’s Johnny friggin’ Cash.

This handsomely packaged collection, then, is intended for the hard-core completists and Cash-obsessives. Many of these platters from the Columbia Records vaults—recorded during Johnny’s 28-year tenure with the label (and beyond)—were previously unavailable in CD form and banished to the dusty bins of used-record stores. 

Among the curiosities is Johnny Cash pa Osteraker, recorded at a Swedish prison in 1972 with Johnny addressing his audience in broken Swedish between songs. Other live performances unearthed include Strawberry Cake from the London Palladium in 1975, which captures a mid-set evacuation of the hall, and Koncert V Praze from the Sport Hall in Prague in 1975. Also interesting are the Cash-helmed soundtracks to I Walk the Line and Little Fauss and Big Halsy, which boasts contributions from Johnny and his Sun Records buddy Carl Perkins. There is also an expanded version of Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar, a compilation of Sun sides from 1954 through 1958. A helpful booklet traces Johnny’s musical arc up through Highwaymen 2, recorded in 1990 with Waylon, Willie and Kristofferson.

Complete Columbia also paints a more complete picture of one of modern music’s most fascinating characters. In addition to the darker, outsider-themed material so closely tied to Johnny’s mythology, the box includes no less than three Christmas albums, a children’s music collection and the humorous novelty set Everybody Loves a Nut. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Man in Black also had a lighter side.

Ultimately, there’s enough in this big box to last a fan weeks, months and years. It’s not all equal, but it certainly leaves no stone unturned.

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