Review: Johnny Cash – Bootleg Vol. II – From Memphis to Hollywood (Columbia/Legacy, 2011)
Five years ago the archive of recordings left behind at the House of Cash was cracked open for the two-disc Personal File, which itself has been reissued as Bootleg Volume 1: Personal File in parallel with this second two-disc helping. Where the previous volume focused on Cash’s mid-70s home recordings, volume two reaches back further to explore Cash’s 1950s beginnings in Memphis and his transition to country superstardom in the 1960s. Along the way the set collects live performances, continuity and commercial pitches (for his employer Home Equipment Company) from Cash’s first radio appearance, on KWEM in 1955, mid-50s Sun demos and rarities, and a deep cache of 1960s studio recordings. Eleven of these tracks have never been officially released in the U.S., and fifteen, including eleven Sun-era demos, have never been officially released anywhere.
As on the earlier volume, Cash lays down his demos without the fire of master takes, but even when just feeling out his songs or recording them as a record of copyright, his authority and magnetism as a performer shines through. The mid-50s demos are sung to an acoustic guitar, lending them the intimate and unguarded feel of Cash singing more for himself than an imagined audience. Alongside early demos of Cash classics (“I Walk the Line,” “Get Rhythm,” “Belshazzar”) are the rare, proto-rockabilly “You’re My Baby” and the wonderfully primitive “Rock and Roll Ruby.” Seven Sun outtakes capture Cash’s classic tic-tac rhythm, as well as false starts and a rough guitar solo that finds the group seeking the groove of “Big River.” Cash’s commanding baritone is magnified by the terrific atmosphere of Sun’s production sound.
The 1960s recordings are more polished, waxed in Nashville for Columbia, with a band, backing chorus and at times in stereo. The tracks include non-album singles, B-sides and demos, including several proposed theme songs for television and film. Cash’s “Johnny Yuma Theme” fits with his many other Western-themed songs, but went unused for ABC’s The Rebel, as did a title theme for Cash’s 1961 film Five Minutes to Live, and most surprising of all (that is, for its existence, rather than it’s lack of use), a Western-tinged title song Cash proposed for the James Bond film Thunderball. Additional treats include a vibraphone led rendition of the nineteenth century “There’s a Mother Always Waiting,” a duet with Bonanza’s Lorne Greene on “Shifting, Whispering Sands,” and a solo cover of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” all previously unreleased in the U.S.
Cash’s interest in folk music is heard in a selection of traditional material, chiming twelve-string guitar, and the elegy of “The Folk Singer.” His powerful recitations underscore the gravity of “On the Line” and “Roll Call,” and his humor shines on the wry “Foolish Questions.” Disc two closes with Cash’s original demo of “Six White Horses,” recorded before his brother Tommy made it a hit, and the full length demo of his television show’s “Come Along and Ride This Train.” The set includes a 24-page booklet filled with period photos and liner notes by Ashley Kahn. Producer Gregg Geller has done a superb job of selecting and sequencing the material, drawing an arc from Cash’s earliest radio performance, through his development as a songwriter, singer and one-of-a-kind American stylist. Vic Anesini’s mastering ties it neatly together into a surprisingly consistent listening experience. With 57 tracks clocking in at two hours, this is a rich and fulfilling treat for Johnny Cash fans.