Bootleg Volume II – From Memphis To Hollywood
REVIEW BY: Josh Allen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/23/2011
After legendary musicians pass away, it’s only natural to reexamine the road he or she traveled to reach that status. The benefits of doing so are two-fold: you learn how the musician’s creative methods flourished from its infancy, and your thirst for new material is quenched. Such is the result of listening to posthumously released Bootleg, Volume II - From Memphis To Hollywood, a two-disc collection of largely unreleased recordings from the Man in Black.
Seconds into the album, you’re transported to over a half-century ago in 1955, when then-23 year old Cash made his debut over the radio waves on Memphis’s KWEM Saturday afternoon program. On this untouched, rawest of recordings, Cash introduces some of his earliest works, such as honky-tonkin’ “Wide Open Road” and Bible-quotin’ “Belshazzar,” with his backing band, the Tennessee Two. Each song is bookended by advertisements for a local home improvement store (which employed Cash at the time), narrated by Cash himself. The opening 15 minutes offer a captivating insight into the birth of a legend, and in itself is a great reason to check this album out.
Next come early demo tracks, during his time in Memphis with Sun Records. “The advice I’ve given myself over the years,” Cash had told American Songwriter just before his death, is to “keep it simple.” Indeed, Cash mastered this art, leading to ingeniously straightforward and ultimately profound country, folk, and gospel songwriting. This style is doubly perceptible in the unreleased demos captured in this collection, many of which consist of Cash singing and strumming solo, in glorious monophonic quality.
It’s especially stunning to hear early classics like “I Walk The Line,” “Get Rhythm,” and “Big River” in their stripped-down, incomplete form. Peppered here and there throughout the album’s demos, you’ll hear pauses or even abrupt stops in the music, clear evidence that Cash was still working out some kinks. In addition, it’s fascinating to listen to these early recordings given the context of his life as a whole. For instance, “Leave That Junk Alone” appeals the listener to stray away from alcohol and stick with “cool H2O.” Ironic, of course, given his later well-chronicled abuse of drugs and alcohol.
In 1958, Cash left Tennessee behind for Los Angeles when he signed with Columbia Records, and disc two offers 25 outtakes and B-sides from his first decade on the west coast. Although still definitively Johnny Cash, it’s immediately obvious that these tracks are far more polished and representative of his transition into the mainstream. Backing vocals, especially noticeable in “You Dreamer You,” were rarely found in his Sun recordings, but are omnipresent on the second disc.
“Send A Picture Of Mother,” sung from the sad perspective of a jailed outlaw writing to his former cellmate, is a gut-wrenching highlight of the Columbia outtakes, along with a folksy cover of Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings.” Still other compositions are byproducts of his work in the movie industry, such as “Five Minutes To Live” from the 1961 bank-robber flick of the same name in which Cash himself starred.
Following the first volume of bootlegs covering 1973-1983, Bootleg, Volume II is an intimate glimpse into Cash’s entrance and eventual explosion into the country music arena. Clocking in at over two hours, the album catalogs an almost overwhelming plethora of unfamiliar material. Although these chronicles will be valued most by longtime Cash devotees searching for a cure for nostalgia, it’s fascinating enough to make the album appreciable by any casual Americana fan.