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The Complete Johnny Cash Album Guide, vol. I: 1957-1969

Written by Adam Sheets on . Posted in Articles - Music

Johnny Cash is one of those artists who's discography is massive. As the man who first led me to take country music seriously, the Man in Black and his music will always hold a special place for me. I guess you could call him my gateway drug and the entire reason I'm doing what I'm doing now. I want to own all the Johnny Cash that's out there, but I guess some of you may be more casual Cash fans who do not. For that reason, I decided to give you a complete guide to all of Cash's albums, from his 1957 debut to the recent archival releases.

Due to the scope of the project, it will be broken up into three volumes. This first will cover 1957 to 1969. The next part will cover 1970 to his departure from Columbia Records. The third and final volume will cover the Mercury and American years, as well as posthumous releases. I will be including all studio and live albums, any collaboration albums with other artists and anything else relevant to the project. I will not be including any of the cash-in repackagings on the Sun label that were released to compete with Cash's work with Columbia, nor will I include any bootlegs, although that may be a volume four at some point in the future.

One thing to keep in mind is that where I seem to be critical of an album, I'm stacking Cash up against his own best work and his potential. Nobody in mainstream Nashville today is capable of making an album as good as Cash's worst effort.

To put this article in context at the beginning, in 1957 teenagers and younger audiences bought singles, not LPs. Johnny Cash had already had a string of hit singles on the Sun label going back to 1955, but Sun really wasn't an album label. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins were popular with younger crowds and Sam Phillips was content to keep their output flowing about three minutes at a time. Yet Phillips must have sensed a broader, cross-generational appeal for Cash's music and in 1957, Sun Records released a full Johnny Cash album. That is where this begins...

With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)- Hands down, this is one of the best debut albums in country music history. This is an album that showed Cash's abilities to perform anything from gospel ("I Was There When It Happened") to folk ("Rock Island Line," "Wreck of the Old 97"), rockabilly ("Country Boy"), and Hank Williams standards ("I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow"), all while sounding like the unique artist he was. Not to mention the three hit singles: "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "I Walk the Line." Song for song, this ranks as one of his best albums and it is not one to pass up.

Sings the Songs that Made Him Famous (1958)- Cash's debut album was produced mostly by Sam Phillips and it showcased a unique performer doing what he did best: melding various strains of traditional American music and forming it into a whole new sound that could only be described as "Johnny Cash music." The album sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time and that is what made it great. His next album, on the other hand, was produced by Jack Clement and found Cash making minor concessions to the popular music of the day. Which is not to say it's a bad album. Far from it, actually. After all, it does contain "Big River." Yet it isn't as timeless as his debut and isn't nearly as essential.

The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958)- Cash's first album for Columbia Records remains one of his best efforts. He returns again to some of the folk music that was prevalent on his debut, this time updating the traditional ballad "Frankie and Johnny." He also expands his palette lyrically, performing songs about his childhood ("Pickin' Time"), Old West mythology ("Don't Take Your Guns to Town"), and the role of the performer himself ("The Troubadour"), all themes he would return to over and over throughout his career. Another highlight is the classic ballad "I Still Miss Someone." This would be the blueprint for Cash's more standard (non-concept, non-religious) albums for the next three decades, but this is one of the best examples of that blueprint in action.

Hymns (1959)- Cash's first album of gospel material is very interesting. With the exception of two well-known hymns, these songs are mostly unknown, some written by Cash himself. If you're into gospel music, this is a great one to have in your collection. He would go on to make better gospel records later in his career, but he wouldn't make one this pure until the early 2000s.

Songs of Our Soil (1959)- This is easily Cash's darkest album to date. Nearly every song here deals with death in some way. Among the ones that do not are the classic "Five Feet High and Rising" and "I Want to Go Home," which would later be covered by the Beach Boys as "Sloop John B." Other highlights include "The Man on the Hill," "The Caretaker," and an excellent version of "The Great Speckled Bird." This is a classic album from one of Cash's best eras.

Ride This Train (1960)- Cash's first concept album. Ironically, this album isn't comprised of train songs. Instead the train is the listener's means of transportation as they travel the country with Cash and he tells stories and sings songs. This is a very enjoyable album, but it isn't among his best and no song here really sticks out from the rest. Casual fans can skip this one, but more hardcore listeners will want to hear where the long string of Cash concept records began.

Now There Was a Song! (1960)- If your definition of country music is Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams this is easily Cash's most country album. In many ways, this is a tribute to the folks Cash grew up hearing on the Grand Ole Opry and, while it's interesting to hear Cash pay tribute to his musical heroes, the fact remains that almost none of these tunes are remembered as Johnny Cash songs. The exception is "Transfusion Blues," which he would later make famous as "Cocaine Blues." This album is an entertaining look at traditional country, but within the Cash catalog it's little more than an interesting vanity project.

The Lure of the Grand Canyon (1961)- For completists and classical music fans only. I would be out of my comfort zone if I were to comment on the merits of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and it's performance here. So all I can tell you is that Cash only appears on the last track, an eleven-minute spoken word tour through the Grand Canyon. This is probably the least essential album in his catalog. Too bad he didn't participate in a recording of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." That would have been worth having.

Hymns from the Heart (1962)- For his second gospel album, Cash sticks closer to material found in the hymn book at your church and delivers great takes on standards like "If We Never Meet Again," "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," "My God is Real," "When He Reached Down His Hand for Me," and the spiritual "I Got Shoes." The arrangements are also more like what you would expect from a sacred album, with the Tennessee Three being very much in the background. Not essential, but this is a great album for those interested in hearing a young Cash singing more standard religious material than can be found on the 1959 album.

The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)- Although most of what preceded it is nothing less than spectacular, this album still feels like a comeback in a way. It had been five albums and three years since the release of Songs of Our Soil, the last "standard" Johnny Cash album. Cash steps up to the plate brilliantly, performing songs from the songbooks of everybody from Tompall Glaser and Dallas Frazier to Jimmie Rodgers and Leabelly, while also giving us a pair of superb originals. Of particular interest are "Delia's Gone" and "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now," both of which re-emerged decades later when Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin. In short, this is one of Cash's best albums of the era and one that deserves a place in your collection.

Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963)- A concept album about the American worker is a natural fit for Johnny Cash. Nine-minute opening tracks are far from the norm in country music, then or now, but he pulls it off with "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer," which would become a fan favorite. Elsewhere on the album, Cash does great versions of Harlan Howard's "Busted," Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train," and Merle Travis's "Nine Pound Hammer." Most notably, though, this album gives the listener a rare opportunity to hear Cash sing pure blues material, including an acapella call-and-response duet with Anita Carter on "Another Man Done Gone." This album easily ranks as one of Cash's best concept records.

The Christmas Spirit (1963)- If you're anything like me, you feel that Christmas albums are overproduced, overly sentimental, and all too often include the same songs over and over. I'd be lying if I were to say that this album didn't share all of those qualities, but it doesn't do so in a manner that is offensive. While Cash does perform standards such as "Silent Night," "The Little Drummer Boy," and even "Blue Christmas," the best material here is all original. So, in short, instead of making a Christmas album where he sleep-walked through everyone's favorite carols, he made a Johnny Cash album that happened to revolve around Christmas. This isn't an album you'll play constantly, but it may be a good one to have around in December.

I Walk the Line (1964)- Perhaps Cash or Columbia or both were pissed that six years after he left the label, Sun Records had continued to release Johnny Cash albums in an attempt to compete with his new material. So on this album, Cash re-recorded earlier classics such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Hey Porter," and the title track, a smart move in the long run, as it gave Columbia versions of some of his biggest hits. Naturally, these versions aren't as good as the originals, but that's only half of the story. The other half is five new songs, including the classic "Understand Your Man." Still, as an album it doesn't rank anywhere near the top five. Or top fifty, for that matter.

Bitter Tears (1964)- Easily Cash's best, most controversial, and most ambitious concept album. Bitter Tears attempts to tell the story of the American Indian. In doing so, the single "Ballad of Ira Hayes" was banned from the airwaves and Cash was called a "traitor to his race" by one prominent music executive. Cash, in turn, took out an ad in Billboard magazine where he accused the country music industry of "wallowing in meaninglessness." But the backstory, while interesting, isn't as important as the contents of the album itself, which is where Cash really brings the goods. "Ira Hayes" is now acknowledged as a classic, but most of the other songs here should be as well. The majority of the album was written by folk singer Peter LaFarge, further cementing Cash's standing with the folk scene of the day. Yet it's Cash's original "Apache Tears" that really steals the show here. If you've been reading this and have decided that the concept albums aren't for you and you'd rather just stick with Cash's more standard output, pick this one up anyway and thank me later.

Orange Blossom Special (1965)- Coming off of his best concept album, Cash made what may very well be the best album of his career. I can't say enough about this one. The title track is a classic that you've all heard, but after the train whistles and harmonica fades out, he continues for 11 more tracks to make the perfect Johnny Cash albums. Everything from gospel, to country standards like "Wildwood Flower" and "The Long Black Veil," to traditional folk songs, originals (including the protest song "All of God's Children Ain't Free"), and three tunes by Bob Dylan can be found here. This is not only my favorite Cash album, but also one of the top five country albums of all time.

Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965)- Cash was obviously fascinated by the legends and folklore of the Old West and his passion for the subject shines through here. If this had been a collection of the 10 or 12 best songs here, it would be one of his best albums. Instead, it's a very good, but flawed double album of 20 songs (19, if you take out the completely superfluous spoken word ending). There is a lot of great stuff here, most notably Carl Perkins' "The Ballad of Boot Hill," Harlan Howard's "The Blizzard," and Cash's own "Mean as Hell," but the album suffers from a severe lack of direction. It rambles on and on and seems to have no clue where the hell it's going. Still, hardcore fans will want it in their collections.

Everybody Loves a Nut (1966)- This is an odd one. And I mean that in the best possible way. Here Cash presents eleven novelty songs. Two of them ("Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" and "Joe Bean") would become better known when he performed them live at Folsom Prison two years later. The whole album is full of songs like that and it deserves to be heard by anybody who thinks of Cash only as the dark prince of country music. Two of the more notable songs here are "A Cup of Coffee," a lengthy, drunken duet with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and "The Singing Star's Queen," where Cash name-drops Waylon Jennings 45 years before Brantley Gilbert made it cool.

Happiness is You (1966)- Although nine of this album's eleven tracks come from the pens of other writers, this is clearly a very personal album for Johnny Cash. The performances of songs such as "Ancient History" and Gordon Lightfoot's "For Lovin' Me," are clearly about the breakup of Cash's marriage. Even more telling is the fact that both the title track (one of Cash's best love songs) and "Happy to Be With You" were co-written by Cash and future wife June Carter. Overall, this is a very enjoyable album with a treasure trove of great material for established fans, but it isn't exactly the best starting place for a newbie.

Carryin' On (1967; with June Carter)- Given their growing romantic relationship and the success of the single "Jackson" on the country charts, an album of duets with June Carter made perfect sense. Unfortunately, both artists made much better albums in their career. The album opening "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" and the aforementioned "Jackson" are classics, but not all of the material is up to those standards, or anywhere near them. The two Ray Charles covers are particularly ill-suited for this duo and "Fast Boat to Sydney," with it's references to "hoppin' like a kangaroo" is easily the most ridiculous song either of them ever recorded. But at least they were having fun, right?

From Sea to Shining Sea (1968)- By 1968, Cash was probably getting tired of the concept albums and running out of ideas, so what we have here is a concept album without any real concept. The album is notable only for the fact that it was the first album where Cash wrote every song. But he sounds bored singing them and he wrote much better material elsewhere. Nothing really stands out, other than "The Walls of a Prison" and "Another Song to Sing," both of which deserved to be on a better album than this one.

At Folsom Prison (1968)- This is an album most of you already have in your collection, even if you own nothing else by Johnny Cash. So we'll keep it short and sweet. If you can only own three live country albums, make them this one, At San Quentin, and Waylon Live.

The Holy Land (1969)- In 1969, Johnny Cash finally melded two of his favorite things: gospel music and the concept album. Although the hologram on the front of the LP is the coolest thing here, this is still the best religious album of his career, his best concept album since Bitter Tears, and his best studio work of the late '60s. Some will find this album preachy at times, but there is no denying that Cash believes every word he's saying as he and June guide the listener on a tour of the Holy Land. There is plenty of spoken-word history to be found here and plenty of great music, most notably the classics "He Turned the Water into Wine" and "Daddy Sang Bass." This is the Johnny Cash gospel album to own.

At San Quentin (1969)- See entry for At Folsom Prison.

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