’Tis the season to snag a big, beautiful box set as a gift for your favorite aunt or uncle who loves classical music, jazz or — Johnny Cash.
Columbia has outdone itself with this lunch bucket of 59 original albums, two singles compilations, a Sun Records greatest hits (“I Walk the Line,” “Hey, Porter,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”) and a 1969 live show at Madison Square Garden. After debuting on Sun Records, The Man in Black established a unique, country-folk identity with Columbia (1958-86), from “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “Ring of Fire” and “Live at Folsom Prison” (which made Cash a crossover star) to “I Still Miss Someone,” “Jackson” and “A Boy Named Sue.”
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As one browses through this bountiful collection, it’s striking to hear how consistently committed Cash was to a panoramic, populist, Walt Whitman-like folk balladry that gave voice to all of America, from the land itself and its first inhabitants to its working stiffs and outlaws. But like his friend Bob Dylan, Cash didn’t turn up his nose at popular forms, so his music rings with rock, Nashville country and the ever-present staccato twang of Luther Perkins’ electric guitar.
Columbia did the right thing by repackaging the music in LP-replica CDs, complete with original sleeve art, front and back; a 198-page booklet provides discographical info. Nitpicks: The booklet biography is cursory for a compilation this size; photo IDs are incomplete; and the embedded sequencing and credits on Disc 15 are erroneous.
In the late 1930s, Charlie Christian thrust the guitar from the rhythm section at the back of the bus to the solo section in front, firing out willowy, single-note lines inspired by saxophonist Lester Young and amplified by a Gibson ES130 electric guitar. Every guitarist from Scottie Moore to Bill Frisell owes a debt to Christian. This four-disc collection (first issued in 2002) makes it clear why he is so important. Bluesy swing gems such as “Solo Flight,” with its soaring arcs, and “Flying Home,” a riff Christian brought up from Oklahoma City, are here, but so are modernist episodes, such as the solo on the outtake of “Ad Lib Blues,” which features notes that wouldn’t become common till bebop. Christian’s company includes Young himself, Count Basie, Benny Goodman (who made Christian famous), Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton, Jess Stacy … and many others.
Documentation is first class, and copious outtakes include a hilarious moment when someone says “the guitar isn’t supposed to be loud in the beginning!” No sooner did the guitar begin to be heard than people started complaining it was too loud! Pity Christian died so young — in 1942, at age 25 — because he probably would have dug Jimi Hendrix.
The prodigious recorded output of conductor Sir Georg Solti, and the mutual loyalty between the maestro and the Decca label, are almost unimaginable in today’s recording environment. Luckily for posterity, Solti’s 50-year legacy with Decca — capped, many believe, by his incomparable recordings of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” with the Vienna Philharmonic — is being honored and refurbished with a galaxy of new reissues.
Of particular interest to Seattle-area music lovers because of this city’s long identification with Wagnerian opera, the Deluxe Edition of Solti’s “Ring” is available with the remastered 14-CD set of the “Ring” operas as the centerpiece. It also includes a two-CD introduction to the “Ring” by author Deryck Cooke; a film about the recording project; a book about the recording process; a facsimile of Solti’s score for “The Ride of the Valkyries” with explanations of his markings; the complete libretti in German and English; a 40-page brochure about the recordings; art prints of recording session photos; additional Wagnerian recordings led by Solti; and a single Blu-ray audio disc with better than CD-quality, “lossless” sound that allows you to hear the first “Ring” opera, “Das Rheingold” in a single continuous sweep, as it would be performed in the opera house.
Paul de Barros, Seattle Times music critic