Review: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash

Posted: March 14, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Country, Gospel
Tags: , , ,

Ring of FireIf you had bought all of Johnny Cash’s Columbia LPs up until 1963, you would still be missing some 26 songs, including 9 single-only a-sides, a handful of b-sides, and four songs from The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP. Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash is Columbia’s first attempt to draw some of these together.Thus, apart from one track, it is a “best-of singles” collection, highlighting non-album releases.

The results are mixed. Here’s what you get:

  • Five a-sides: Ring Of Fire, Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord?), The Rebel – Johnny Yuma, Bonanza!, The Big Battle
  • Six b-sides: I’d Still Be There (Ring of Fire), What Do I Care (All Over Again), Forty Shades Of Green (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma single), Remember The Alamo (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), Tennessee Flat Top Box (Tall Man), (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me) (with the Carter Family) (Were You There)
  • One single released on The Fabulous Johnny Cash: I Still Miss Someone

Perhaps what’s more interesting is what wasn’t included:

  • Five a-sides: All Over Again, The Little Drummer Boy, I Got Stripes, Girl in Saskatoon, Tall Man
  • Ten b-sides: You Dreamer You (Frankie’s Man, Johnny), I’ll Remember You (The Little Drummer Boy), Lorena (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), The Ballad of Boot Hill (The Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP), Smiling Bill McCall (Seasons of My Heart), Second Honeymoon (Going to Memphis), Locomotive Man (Girl in Saskatoon), A Little at a Time (In the Jailhouse Now), Pick a Bale O’ Cotton (Bonanza!), Send a Picture of Mother (Busted)

To evaluate this album fairly, it should be judged against its title, “The Best of”. Today we are blessed with more completist offerings including the Legacy reissues, as well as the excellent Singles, Plus 2-disc collection in the Complete Columbia Collection. The question is to what degree are these “The Best of Johnny Cash” from his Columbia releases, 1958-1963?

Certainly, the album opens well with his absolute smash Ring of Fire. I Still Miss Someone is a strange inclusion as it was already available on an album, although in my opinion it is Cash’s best song ever, epic in its minimalism. Cash had a great love for gospel, and so the inclusion of Were You There/Peace in the Valley is appropriate; it’s also the first appearance of the Carter family in his recordings, so is important in that regard. The Rebel – Johnny Yuma was a big hit for Cash, and a tie-in to a popular TV show; he always closed his set with this one back then. Likewise, including his rendition of the theme to the Bonanza! TV show would have helped sell albums. Is that one his best? Not necessarily, but it’s fun and the opening guitar riff is just blistering.

Where this album lacks is in its historical tales. Johnny loved singing about the history of the South, so it’s important for that aspect of his career to be covered, here. Included here are The Big Battle, a grandly-produced civil war tale, and Remember the Alamo, a military snare drum-led tale of that famous defeat. I would have dropped Alamo, and swapped in Lorena, a more personal tale. I just can’t stand the backing choir on Alamo. Similarly, Forty Shades of Green – a tale of Ireland – sticks out like a sore thumb with its syrupy arrangement. Much better b-sides could have been chosen, particularly the raucous Locomotive Man (note the album doesn’t have any train songs), or the classic heartbreaker, A Little At a Time. Johnny also sang frequently about life in the cottonfields, and the bouncy Pick a Bale O’ Cotton would have filled that bill.

It’s interesting, too how they left out certain a-sides. Although its b-side was included, All Over Again wasn’t. It’s a good boom-chicka-boom song, although inferior to many others from the era, including its b-side. Likewise, Girl in Saskatoon and Tall Man were both failed experiments with bigger production approaches, the former drowned in echo, the latter embarrassing for its sped-up chipmunk-style backing vocals. Tennessee Flat-Top Box should have been the a-side to Tall Man, and is rightfully included here. The Little Drummer Boy would be released later that year on The Christmas Spirit. The tragedy, then, is I Got Stripes which is, quite simply, one of Johnny’s greatest singles. How it was left off, I’ll never know. The remaining b-sides vary in quality, but none are deserving of a “best of”; Boot Hill, for one, would be included on 1965’s Ballads of the True West.

So how does this album fare, then? Again, I’d say it’s a hodge podge. Johnny’s sound varied so much in this era (rockabilly, pop, grander historical tales, country, folk), it’s hard to make a consistent-sounding album. Many of the songs are great, so I’d give it a 4/5.

If I had programmed the album, though, I would have dropped I Still Miss Someone, The Big Battle, Forty Shades of Green, and Remember the Alamo, and subbed in I Got Stripes, Lorena, Locomotive Man, A Little at a Time, and Pick a Bale o’ Cotton. That brings us to 13 tracks, so one would have to go, and I’m not sure which one… which shows just how impossible it is to create a “Best of”.

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