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Review: The Highwaymen, The Essential Highwaymen; and Johnny Cash, From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Volume Two

The Highwaymen
The Essential Highwaymen
[Columbia/Legacy (2011)]

Not to be confused with the early 1960s folk troubadours of the same name, this Highwaymen aggregation were country music’s first super group consisting of titans Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. By the time they cut the first of their three records in 1985, they had worked with each other in various combinations for years, and some like Nelson and Jennings had known each other for over twenty. Jennings and Cash had once roomed together in the early days, and everyone was enamored with Kristofferson’s songwriting brilliance. Nelson was so struck by Kristofferson’s songs that he recorded an entire album’s worth: 1979’s Willie Sings Kristofferson. Yet it wasn’t until his 1984 European tour with Jennings, Kristofferson, and Nelson that Cash recognized that such camaraderie and egoless song swapping could translate into something formal, which resulted in the group’s formation and 1985 Highwayman debut.

This two-disc, 38-track collection repackages the best of the Highwaymen albums and includes a previously, unreleased track “Desperados Waiting For a Train” from a1993 Farm Aid concert. But the Essential collection goes beyond the obvious by featuring 14 tracks outside the Highwaymen domain that emphasize the icons’ tight knit chemistry prior to and even after its formation. Sure, it requires wading through some overly familiar material (“Good Hearted Woman,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”), but the rewards are worth it. On “Backstage Pass” (originally appearing on Cash’s 1989’s Boom Chicka Boom), the man in black recounts what being backstage at a Willie Nelson concert was like: ‘There were wackos and wierdos and dingbats and do-dos, athletes and movie stars and David Allen Coe.” (Interestingly, Coe was none of the above in Cash’s eyes). Jennings joins Cash for a heartwarming tale of when Hank Williams came to town while Cash makes his 1970 interpretation of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” practically his own.

Among the highlights are “Deportee” where Johnny Rodriguez joins Nelson and Cash as well as a riveting rendition of Cash’s “Big River” where all four Highwaymen alternate verses without a hitch. The last few tracks (“Nowhere Road,” “It Is What It Is”) of the second disc rock a bit, making you realize how things could have been better had the Highwaymen used the passing lane more often than just cruising at the posted speed limit. A satisfying collection of reissues loaded with trimmings.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

Johnny Cash
From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Volume Two
[Columbia/Legacy (2011)]

The second of the “authorized” Johnny Cash bootleg series, one CD (“The 1950s”) consists of 11 previously unreleased Sun-era demos, a 1955 Memphis radio broadcast, 7 outtakes from the Sun vaults (produced by Sam Phillips and Jack Clement from 1954-1957), and two one-of-a-kind demos. Cash’s work with the talented Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant), his backup group, is featured on many of these songs. The second CD (“The 1960s”) is focused on 25 non-album singles, B-sides, and outtakes taken directly from Cash’s years on Columbia Records. Taken together, they provide numerous insights into Cash’s formative years as a struggling country/rockabilly singer to his time in Hollywood as a songwriter and sometimes actor in film and television. The best moments are listening to early demos on classic songs like “I Walk the Line,” “I’ll Cry for You,” and “Get Rhythm” and hearing Cash sing “The Johnny Yuma Theme” and sharing a duet with Lorne Greene on “Shifting, Whispering Sands.”

—TJ McGrath (Woodbridge, CT)

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