Johnny Cash – Setlist: The Very Best Of (Columbia/Legacy, 2010)
The Legacy division of Sony continues to explore new ways to keep the CD relevant. Their Playlist series was the first out of the gate with eco-friendly packaging that used 100% recycled cardboard, no plastic, and on-disc PDFs in place of paper booklets. Their new Setlist series follows the same path of a single disc that provide an aficionado’s snapshot of an artist’s catalog. In this case the anthologies turn from the studio to the stage, pulling together tracks from an artist’s live repertoire, generally all previously released, but in a few cases adding previously unreleased items. As with the Playlist collections, the Setlist discs aren’t greatest hits packages; instead, they forgo some obvious catalog highlights to give listeners a chance to hear great, lesser-known songs from the artist’s stage act.
Johnny Cash’s volume of Setlist features fourteen tracks drawn from only five years of performing, 1968-72, yet the range of venues and audiences shows off the breadth of Cash as a performer and entertainer. In addition to his two iconic live albums recorded at Folsom and San Quentin Prison, Cash also performed for down home audiences at the Ryman Auditorium and uptown city slickers at Madison Square Garden. He sang for Swedish prisoners and American presidents, and hosted a national television show that bridged hippies and squares. Everything here has been issued before, but unlike the full-concert albums and videos, this collection gives a sense of Cash’s universality, rather than the depth with which he connected to each specific audience.
The Folsom and San Quentin tracks (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Got a Woman,” “Wreck of the Old 97,” “I Walk the Line” and “Big River”) are the most familiar – and if they’re not, you’re recommended to the full albums and videos [1 2]. Less famous is Cash’s performance of his original “What is Truth” at the White House in 1970. He shook off Nixon’s request for “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac,” and challenged the sitting president with songs of the underclass. Cash seems nearly exhausted by the cultural conflicts of the times as he asks for understanding of the young people who would soon inherit the country. Cash’s humor and his chemistry with wife June are shown in a warm 1969 medley of “Darlin’ Companion,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” and “Jackson” recorded at the home of the Grand Ol’ Opry for his television show.
Cash sings his Christian faith in a pair of gospel songs, but it’s the firmness with which he stands by the world’s underdogs that really shows his beliefs in practice; every time he steps onto the stage he earns his Man in Black nickname. Cash’s best-known live song, “A Boy Named Sue,” which he debuted at his 1969 San Quentin concert, is heard here in a 1972 performance at Sweden’s Österåker Prison. By this point the song had been a big hit, and so the audience doesn’t have the hysterical reaction of the earlier recording, but Cash still sings it with the same sly smile as the single. The collection’s tracks are thoughtfully selected and sequenced, with tracks from different concerts flowing impressively. This is no substitute for the full concert recordings, but it’s a terrific single-disc introduction to Johnny Cash in his performing prime.