Live Around the World: Bootleg Vol. III by Johnny Cash

The ongoing Johnny Cash Bootleg series of archival recordings has been providing an increasingly comprehensive look at the man whose personal and musical vision would far surpass his modest vocal talents and ultimately fuel his ascension to worldwide acclaim. The series’ third volume, a double-disc set of mostly unreleased live recordings that range from 1956 to 1979, offers a broad and frequently fascinating view of Johnny Cash the performer.

The bulk of the artist’s measured, gospel-heavy 1970 White House concert (featuring then-President Richard Nixon’s introduction and comments) appears here, and is nearly worth the cost of admission in itself, though it’s a far more energetic Cash who emerges in a 1969 Vietnam show for U.S. troops, offering an edgy set that feeds off the soldiers’ feverish response. Mostly, though, you can hear the singer’s easy rapport with his audiences, his versatility and his well-tailored song lists, whether he’s playing at a Swedish prison or establishing his reputation as a folk-styled balladeer in 1964 at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, where he’s respectful and deliberate yet not overly restrained. 

But a Maryland set from 1962 is an eye-opening reminder that the now highly respected pop-culture elder was once a drug abuser who could be a loose cannon. Sounding as though he may be amphetamine-addled, a goofy and tangential Cash tosses out dry asides (“I was in the Air Force for 12 years . . . from ’50 to ’54.”), does a crazed set of impersonations, burps, hollers and tears through a near-reckless set including an accelerated “I Walk the Line” that bears little resemblance to the locomotive-steady version also included here from a 1956 Dallas show—and he does it to the all-ages audience’s audible delight, confirming his natural appeal even in unrefined form.

In addition to containing a wealth of material spanning rockabilly, folk, gospel and country of numerous stripes, Bootleg Vol. III reveals Johnny Cash’s evolution from an earnest professional entertainer to a larger-than-life American musical ambassador carrying a message of dignity for all people. This is no less than the story of a flawed man finding his own greatness—the primary factor behind the power and substance of these simple, no-frills performances, as well as the reason why any serious fan of Cash or country music history will want to walk the line it so compellingly traces.

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