The Complete Sun Recordings: 1955–1958
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by John Metzger
In recent years, Johnny Cash’s work has been the subject of countless retrospective compilations and multi-disc career overviews, but the music industry took things to a new level in 2005. Despite the fact that there already were plenty of options available to consumers that sliced and diced his albums into a myriad of configurations, the imminent release of the biopic Walk the Line, along with the publicity it inevitably will generate, has caused the labels that own a stake in Cash’s output to release freshly-minted aggregations at a frenzied pace. Collectively, the companies seem hellbent on making sure that there’s something on the market that appeals to everyone who holds even the slightest bit of interest. Earlier this year, for example, all seven of the outings that Cash issued for Sun Records were compiled for the limited edition box set The Original Sun Albums: The Complete Collection. On the other hand, The Legend took a broader approach by attempting to condense material that spanned a whopping 47 years into a four-disc slice of history, while the more recent album The Legend of Johnny Cash further distilled his efforts into a 21-track endeavor.
What these products have in common, of course, is that they all featured selections from Cash’s early days in Memphis with Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips, so it’s no surprise that the latest salvo in the onslaught of Cash-oriented merchandise that will be lining the shelves this holiday season takes an even closer look at this era. Indeed, The Complete Sun Recordings: 1955–1958 presents one version of every song that he recorded for the label — which, by the way, includes such legendary tracks as Big River, Get Rhythm, and I Walk the Line — and despite the fact that it misses out on a myriad of equally estimable nuggets from the remainder of The Man in Black’s career, the box set is worthy introduction to his formidable canon.
To refer to this period of Cash’s career as his formative years, however, is something of a misnomer. After all, as is proven throughout The Complete Sun Recordings: 1955–1958, his commanding presence already was well-established by the time that he started working in Sun’s studio in Memphis. Nevertheless, this is where it all began, and the stripped-down tonality of the arrangements that he employed combined with his resonant, rumbling baritone injected a bleak and brooding air into country music’s shiny superficiality and shook the Nashville establishment to its very core.
Five years ago, Cash re-examined the entirety of his work by dividing it into a trio of segments that coalesced around the themes of love, God, and murder, and although the 61 tracks contained on The Complete Sun Recordings: 1955–1958 largely relay the tales of the brokenhearted, there are also odes to religion (Belshazzar) and cold-hearted killers (Folsom Prison Blues) in its midst. Still, as Cash’s career progressed, the danger lurking within his songs began to succumb to more polished production values, and several tracks from the latter portion of the set — Ballad of a Teenage Queen, Guess Things Happen That Way, You’re the Nearest Thing to Heaven, and Down the Street to 301, among them — are augmented with backing choruses that hint at the problems that would plague many of his later recordings. Nevertheless, through all of his endeavors, the honesty of his words and the gravity of his voice lent a healthy dose of realism to his material, so much so that artists stretching from Bob Dylan to U2 have wanted to touch the ring of fire that encircled his God-fearing, desperado’s soul. Simply put, The Complete Sun Recordings: 1955–1958 very well could have been called The Making of a Legend.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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