3 Minute Record

"We learned more from a three minute record baby than we ever learned in school..." -from No Surrender by Bruce Springsteen

Johnny Cash - From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II [Album Review]

When Johnny Cash returned to the United States from Germany and his stint in the U.S. Air Force in Summer 1954 he could not have realized the changes that would happen in his life less than a year later. Within the next year he had married, started making records and had his first child. A life changing few months indeed. Before the decade was complete Cash had signed to Columbia Records in 1958 leaving his original label, Sun Records; he was only 26 years old. His career still in its developmental stage, Cash already had several hits on the Country charts including #1 singles with "I Walk The Line", "There You Go", "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen" and "Guess Things Happen That Way." However, he wasn't a legend nor the "Man in Black" yet. A new compilation reveals part of the back story of the songs Cash wrote during this early stage and subsequent recordings made around the same time those hits were on radio.

Johnny Cash - From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. 2
Johnny Cash - From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. 2

Released by Columbia on February 22, just in time for what would have been Cash's seventy-ninth birthday today, From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II documents Cash from local country artist with a 15 minute show on Memphis radio station KWEM to country star recording for Columbia Records with his band, The Tennessee Two, plus soon to be wife June Carter and the Carter Family on backing vocals. Honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in 1954, Cash started his recording career in 1955 and by 1969 he was a major recording star; a legend.

From Memphis To Hollywood:Bootleg Vol. II doesn't focus on the hits although it does include some demos of some of his greatest songs including "I Walk The Line", "Get Rhythm" and "Big River". This compilation, however, unearths demos, rarities, singles, outtakes and B-sides. These intimate recordings look closely at Cash the songwriter and musician. Much like the previous Bootleg release, Personal File, many of these tracks are solo recordings of just Cash and his guitar.

On disc one Cash is a local artist in Memphis in the 1950s, playing radio shows, recording demos as reference for studio recordings and recording studio tracks for local independent label, Sun Records. First, Cash and the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass) play a 15 minute radio show for KWEM 990 at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, 1955. The recording, their first radio show for the station, is raw as the AM radio it played through over 50 years ago. Cash and the Tennessee Two play 4 songs while Cash hawks commercials for his employer, Home Equipment Company, between songs. As perspective, three days later Cash became a father as his oldest daughter, Rosanne, was born.

Less raw, yet still containing a strong analog tape hiss, the compilation presents a group of 12 demos of Cash recording his own songs with just voice and guitar next. Though unknown when and where these demo recordings were made,  the songs feature a feel of Cash making home recordings as demos for his band, publishing or for Sun Records owner/producer Sam Phillips. Cash's voice is gentle and introspective. The artist at his most vulnerable.

While the radio show and demos provide the listener a glimpse into Cash's working life as a musician the first disc offers other highlights. One highlight from the first disc is "Wide Open Road," a song featured here twice, one a radio recording from the KWEM show and the other a solo Sun Studios recording from late 1954.  Reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night" from his acoustic album, Nebraska, but in reverse.  The narrator of Cash's song is upset and urging his girl to get out-of-town and hit the wide open road leaving him behind for good, while Springsteen's protagonist is pining for his girl and driving all night to see her. In a second highlight Cash gives a dark reading of the classic Leadbelly song "Goodnight Irene".

By the start of disc two, Cash is in Nashville recording for Columbia Records with producers Don Law and Bob Johnston. Cash had moved his family from Memphis to Hollywood in 1958 after signing the deal with Columbia Records. The sound of Cash's 1960s material is more polished, but still contains the stark qualities of his Sun Sessions. However, the music is recorded with better equipment in buildings built specifically as recording studios. With these songs, broad in scope and rich in imagery, Cash carries a heavier weight of the people on his shoulders. The lyrics offer less about Cash's personal experiences and more about overarching themes of the working man and issues for which he deeply cared.

Highlights from the second disc include the prisoner's last moments "Five Minutes To Live", the hard luck lament "The Losing Kind" and the "Locomotive Man". Cash gives his country take on Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings" and provides his negative thoughts on the general public's acceptance of the 1960s folk revival with "The Folk Singer".

Though now an American music legend with a large catalog of recorded work, Johnny Cash's stature continues to grow even after his death in 2003. In this compilation we meet Cash more as a man instead of legendary recording artist. A great way to reacquaint yourself with an artist you think you already know. Long live Johnny Cash!