The Legend of Johnny Cash is billed as the "first ever complete career spanning collection," which is true to a certain extent -- other collections cover territory from 1955 to 2003, but this is the first to contain everything from Sun to Cash's Rick Rubin-produced comeback recordings for American in the '90s and 2000s. Since the biggest complaint that could be lodged against the otherwise excellent 2005 box The Legend -- which, despite appearances to the contrary, is an entirely different compilation -- was that it contained none of these Rubin-produced records, it would seem like The Legend Of would be a bit of a godsend, but that's not necessarily true. If The Legend contained too little of Cash's American recordings, The Legend Of contains too many. At 21 tracks it would seem like this would contain most of Cash's signature songs, and while it does contain a great many of them, it's hampered by the whopping six songs devoted to his American recordings -- add to the mix the 1993 Cash-sung U2 cut "The Wanderer" and "Highwayman" by Cash's outlaw supergroup with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, and that's just a little under half of the disc devoted to music made after his prime. Not just that, but the music he made after he left Columbia partway through the '80s often does not sit well with his classic Sun and Columbia records -- as soon as the synths and big drums of "Highwayman" kick in, the feel of the music changes. While Rubin's work doesn't sound as completely foreign as the icy Euro-rock textures of "The Wanderer" -- as "Rusty Cage" and "I've Been Everywhere," the two selections from 1996's excellent Unchained prove, Rubin knew how to revitalize Cash's signature sound (tellingly, those are the only Rubin-helmed sessions where Cash was supported by a full band) -- there is simply too much of it here, particularly because the stark, monochromatic acoustic readings of "Delia's Gone" and "Give My Love to Rose" sound neutered compared to the versions Cash cut with the Tennessee Two. Also, such a heavy representation of these American recordings makes the collection lopsided, suggesting that these later works were as good, if not better, than the music that made his fame, fortune, and legend (a suggestion strengthened by the fact that Rubin is the only producer who gets a back-cover billing), which is not the case -- Cash's liveliest, deepest, and best music remains what he cut in the '50s and '60s. And while just over half of this compilation is devoted to that music -- all the big hits are hauled out once again -- there still is too much latter-day material for this to be an entirely accurate, satisfying collection (particularly with such big hits as "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Five Feet High and Rising," "Daddy Sang Bass," and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," among other signature tunes, missing). That said, for a brief one-stop overview of Cash's career, this is pretty good -- comps that concentrate solely on the Sun and Columbia eras are more consistent, but this has most of the big singles, which will certainly fill the needs of those who want a compilation that covers a lot of ground.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: June Carter Cash