From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II

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Johnny Cash remains a figure of such cultural importance that it’s easy to forget he was once an unproven singer looking for a break and developing his style. But he was. You can hear the proof on From Memphis to Hollywood, a two-CD collection covering 1954 through 1969. On disc one, you hear Johnny in the 1950s exploring (as well as writing) gospel, rockabilly, folk and surprisingly easygoing, Marty Robbins-esque country, at times in a voice more pleasingly fluid but less distinctive than the craggy delivery that became his signature. (Interestingly, he covers Robbins’ “I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” and makes it entirely his own, as he would do with outside material throughout his career.) You also hear evidence that he was largely musically formed early on; His demos of “Big River” and “I Walk the Line,” for example, are confident and complete, save for the dab of studio polish that, on record, would make his booming voice dominant.

Disc two contains lesser-known 1960s tracks, many unreleased in the U.S. until now. While the track selection affords welcome rarities and a well-rounded look at Johnny’s humor, drama and sentiment, these tracks don’t weather as well, as the early-’60s production style—abounding in white-bread backing vocalists and instrumental ornamentation—rubs against the grain of Cash’s elemental rhythms and weighty vocal presence.

While you won’t hear any studio versions of essential Cash songs, you’ll witness his live radio debut in 1955 (available for the first time in an affordably priced package). It’s a near-revelation to hear Cash tentatively address his first invisible audience, and both ironic and comical to hear him pitching his then-employer’s home-improvement products on the air. JC would ultimately rise to a level of prominence that rendered the need for such a sales pitch unnecessary, even unimaginable—precisely the reason why a historic collection like this one deserves to exist.

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