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Johnny Cash's Columbia Catalog Out Now — As A 63-Disc Box Set

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In 1955, John R. Cash was a sometime auto mechanic, sometime appliance salesman who liked to play the guitar and sing, mostly gospel songs. The "R" in his name didn't stand for anything — and, in fact, he'd been named J.R. at birth and had to come up with "John" when he joined the Air Force. He'd spend the rest of his life reinventing himself.

At first, though, what he wanted to do was make a record. So, like his picking buddy Luther's brother, Carl Perkins, John and his two-piece band went to Memphis to record for Sun Records. They did pretty well, both on the pop and the country charts.

There were two things, though, that Cash wanted to do that he wasn't allowed to do at Sun. He wanted to record more gospel songs, and he wanted to make albums. It was common knowledge at the time that neither sold well enough to make them worthwhile, but Cash eventually sprang loose and signed with Columbia in 1958. His first album for the label, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, had a smash hit, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," on it, and a couple of gospel songs, one of which was by Dorothy Love Coates, a star of black gospel.

The next album was Hymns by Johnny Cash, and then came Songs of Our Soil, a truly weird album on which Cash rewrote folk songs his own way, which was dark and cold. But he was selling plenty of records, making money on the road and appearing on the Opry. In 1961, the Carter Family joined his stage show — not the original trio, but one of them, Maybelle, and her three daughters, June, Helen and Anita. Before long, Cash divorced his first wife and married June, beginning a partnership that would last until her death in 2003.

Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," from 1969, was indicative of something Cash had always done: listening to all kinds of material. The album it comes from, Hello, I'm Johnny Cash, also has two songs by a studio janitor Cash had befriended and encouraged, Kris Kristofferson. It was the first time anyone had recorded his songs. Cash's liberal attitude extended to the TV series he started that year, and not only his friend Bob Dylan, but also people like Pete Seeger, Derek and the Dominos and, yes, Kris Kristofferson got television exposure they'd probably not have gotten otherwise. The show lasted two seasons, and is still fondly remembered.

As the 1970s proceeded, Cash kept putting out records, many of them recorded in his home studio, House of Cash, where he oversaw a company whose job was keeping Johnny Cash on the road and on the radio, and buying interests in various songwriters' output. He wasn't selling multi-platinum, but few country stars were if they weren't adhering to the new pop crossover "countrypolitan" sound, and that wasn't of much interest to Cash. He didn't care about trends, and had enough power in Nashville to do what he wanted: an eccentric home movie about Jesus, The Gospel Road, or supporting unconventional young songwriters like Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver, or making concept albums held together by narration. Or, for that matter, in 1979, recording a song by his new stepson-in-law, Nick Lowe.

In 1985, a highly successful album, Highwayman, put Cash and Kristofferson with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings for a set of songs that included the outlaw national anthem, Guy Clark's "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train." It topped the country album charts, and "Desperadoes" hit No. 15 country. But as the quartet was being given its gold album, someone in the company had already decided that Cash's option wasn't going to be picked up. After 27 years, he'd been dropped.

It wasn't over: he went to Mercury, although I've never heard one of those records, and then began a series of astounding albums produced by Rick Rubin, which aren't in this box. Thanks to them, by the time he died in 2003, Johnny Cash had regained his proper place in American culture.

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