In July 1986 Columbia Records dropped Johnny Cash – one of the most prolific recording artists of all time - after almost thirty years. He was soon picked up by Mercury Records where he would deliver six albums in five years.
But it is generally accepted that Cash’s relationship with Mercury would prove largely unsuccessful. In fact the critics would dub this period of his astonishing career “the wilderness years.”
Now, 17 years after his death, fans get a chance - for more than five hours - to digest and retrospectively critique the Mercury output with the recent release of a multi-platform seven-disc box set, The Complete Mercury Recordings 1986-1991, and a 24-cut “best of” collection representing highlights from this period. The set was assembled by big-name producer Bill Levenson and includes extensive liner notes by music historian Scott Schinder.
The collection begins with Class of ʼ55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming when he returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to reunite with his old Sun label-mates Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The 1986 reunion was actually recorded while Cash was technically still under contract with Columbia, so special arrangements were made to allow him to participate.
It ends with his last Mercury release, the somewhat under-rated The Mystery of Life, which includes two fine Cash compositions “The Greatest Cowboy of Them All” and “I’m An Easy Rider.” But the highlight of this 1991 LP is generally considered to be “The Wanderer,” Cash’s collaboration with U2, previously available on the soundtrack album of the Wim Wenders’ film Faraway, So Close.
Perhaps the most intriguing disc in the collection is the 1988 release Water From the Wells of Home, produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Cash’s engineer from his Sun Record days. Besides daughter Rosanne, this easy-listening album sees guest appearances from some of the biggest names of the eighties –Paul and Linda McCartney, Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Jessi Colter, the Everly Brothers, Tom T. Hall, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr.
In fact the duet with Hank Jr would produce a hit single “That Old Wheel” which would prove to be the highest chart entry during Cash’s period with Mercury.
There is another Jack Clement-produced LP in the set, Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town which was something of a Carter-family affair with the great man being joined by wife June Carter Cash, her siblings Anita and Helen and daughter Carlene Carter, along with Cash’s then son-in-law Marty Stuart.
The album’s only single “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town” saw Cash collaborate with Waylon Jennings on a Bobby Braddock/Charlie Williams song which has one of the great opening stanza’s in country music: Harry Truman was our president/A coke and burger cost you thirty cents/I was still in love with Mavis Brown/On the night Hank Williams came to town
But it is the track which precedes the Cash-Jennings song which unearths one of the finds of the whole collection. Guy Clark’s “Let Him Roll” is a talkin’ blues classic and Cash’s little-known version is an absolute gem and does true credit to Guy’s ramble about old Alice who used to be a whore in Dallas.
The collection includes one previously unreleased song – the delightful “I Draw the Line” - and purists will also be eager to hear digital remastered single versions of “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “That Old Wheel."
The fact that Mercury, not surprisingly, insisted that Cash redo such classics as “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Get Rhythm” means that, apart from the Rick Rubin American Records’ years, much of the Man in Black’s essentials are included in what many fans will regard as a “must-have” collection.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation