Johnny Cash

The Complete Columbia Album Collection

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Weighing in at 63 discs, Johnny Cash's The Complete Columbia Album Collection certainly is hefty. Its only true rival is another massive Legacy set, the 2010 box of Miles Davis' The Complete Columbia Album Collection which bests this 2012 box by a mere seven CDs, yet they share the same blueprint: each contains every one of their Columbia albums, including some posthumously released records (in Cash's case, an expanded version of his debut Sun LP and a double-disc set of non-LP singles are also included), presented as mini-LPs in cardboard sleeves with no bonus tracks, all housed in a simple flip-top box, supported by bare-bones annotation. Miles and Cash are genuine American icons deserving of such monumental tributes, but their legacies are very, very different, largely due to their respective styles. Country music always thrives on sheer product, a constant onslaught of new albums, hits collections, live records, Christmas collections, or sets of spiritual songs. During his 40-odd years at Columbia, Cash released three holiday albums, five gospel LPs, five live albums (a sixth, a 2002 archival release of a 1969 Madison Square Garden concert, is also here), three soundtracks, three albums recorded either with June Carter or the Carter Family, four duets albums (including two albums with the supergroup Highwayman), and one children's album. That amounts to 25 records, a significant chunk of this set, and while they can hardly be written off -- indeed, the live albums are among the best Cash recorded, particularly the pair of prison albums At Folsom Prison and San Quentin -- their existence does illustrate how Cash embraced the rules of Nashville. He pumped out new product like clockwork and never shied away from country corn, singing entire albums' worth of novelties (1966's Everybody Loves a Nut, complete with classic artwork from Mad Magazine's Jack Davis) and solemnly reciting history lessons on such dusty bicentennial artifacts as America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song. Such moments of levity are hardly isolated. Cash cut scores of vaguely silly concept albums -- Ride This Train, From Sea to Shining Sea, Ragged Old Flag, The Rambler, the latter narrating a cross-country car trip -- he told jokes on-stage, he fell for the fashions of the day as he grappled with the fallout of hippies and progressive country, he indulged in nostalgia for both an imagined America and his own past, he took risks and sometimes failed. His patented train-track beat altered over the years, particularly after the passing of guitarist Luther Perkins, and he submitted himself to such indignities as being run through Chip Moman's Nashville hit-making machine in the '80s (1985's Rainbow may be his worst-ever record), but whatever happened, he always sounded like himself: clear, strong, and authoritative, he cut a near mythic figure yet remained grounded by his humor, sentiment, and ragged human spirit. All these contradictions and complications were smoothed over on his sober, sepia-toned American recordings, the '90s comeback that celebrated his gravity at the expense of subtlety, but they're vividly alive on this sprawling set thanks in no small part to the many albums that have never been available on CD prior to this. Just by its sheer size, a box this mammoth isn't for everybody but The Complete Columbia Album Collection restores warmth, heart, and mess to an artist whose legacy was turning into a monochromatic myth.