Boxes under the tree are a given during the holidays, but 'tis the season to think about giving a special box of CDs to the country music lover in your life. As it turns out, 2005 wasn't exactly a watershed year for country music multi-disc boxed sets, but it's an excellent time for a Cash investment or tipping The Band.
At this point, Johnny Cash's catalog of music has been sliced, diced and otherwise placed into the Cuisinart for repackaging in ways (and on labels) that the Man in Black probably never envisioned. In 2005, at least 20 Cash packages were released, including The Legend of Johnny Cash, Hip-O Records' excellent single-CD compilation hitting the high points from the beginning of his career on Sun Records in Memphis to his final triumph, "Hurt."
Cash's lesser work generally towers above the best of most other artists, but it makes sense to go for the good stuff, especially if you're trying to impress a true aficionado. At the top of the list are two recent boxed sets, The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958 and The Legend.
The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958, released by Time Life, chronicles Cash's tenure with Sam Phillips, Sun's owner who was also making history in the studio with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and Carl Perkins, among others. More so than the other Sun recordings, perhaps, Cash's early work doesn't sound dated today -- in large part because he tended to keep things fairly simple throughout his career. Phillips and, later, Cowboy Jack Clement provided the perfect production to launch a superstar career.
With three CDs and 61 songs, The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958, will be of particular interest to those introduced to Cash through the hit film, Walk the Line. With the original recordings of "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," "Get Rhythm," "Big River" and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," the music is an essential part of any country music collection.
Not to be confused with the single-disc The Legend of Johnny Cash, Columbia/Legacy's four CD set, The Legend, includes highlights of Cash's Sun output but follows his career to Nashville and emphasizes his output for Columbia Records, where he gained his status as an American icon.
Rather than a chronological presentation, the 104 tracks are divided into themes. The first covers the hits, including "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue," "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" and "Man in Black." The second disc, billed as "Old Favorites and New," collects some of the songs that became staples of his live shows, including "I Still Miss Someone," "Five Feet High and Rising" and "Dark As a Dungeon." The third disc, "The Great American Songbook," features classics like "The Great Speckle Bird," "Rock Island Line" and "Wabash Cannonball." The last disc could be the most interesting of all in its collection of Cash's collaborations with other artists ranging from the Carter Family, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles to Elvis Costello and U2.
Both boxed sets boast impressive packaging, photos and liner notes. And if you want to really impress somebody, spring for the limited edition version of The Legend. With a list price of $249, it contains an extra CD featuring Cash's first time on the radio, a DVD, a hardcover coffee table book and a lithograph by one of Cash's favorite artists, Marc Burckhardt.
The less obvious gift, though, is The Band's A Musical History, a lavish 108-page hardbound book containing five CDs and one DVD. And even if you think you're not familiar with The Band, you've heard "The Weight" in countless TV shows and films, and Joan Baez scored a hit single in the '70s with a much inferior version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Not to slight the other members, but Robbie Robertson's songwriting and Levon Helm's vocals alone are enough to recommend the boxed set. Robertson served as executive producer of the package that features 111 tracks, including 37 previously unreleased performances spanning The Band's entire career from 1963 to 1976. Never as commercially successful as Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band's more eclectic roots-rock sound has a lasting influence among alt.country bands of today. It was Americana music long before there was a name for it. (Forget the fact that most of The Band were from Canada.)
Other worthy boxed sets released in 2005 include Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection. When it comes to Hank Sr., there's certainly no shortage of compilations, but Mercury Nashville's three-CD set is one of the most useful. Containing 60 songs, the major hits are there alongside slightly more obscure titles. It's a nice compromise between a single-CD greatest hits collection and the 10-CD collection, The Complete Hank Williams, released in 1998.
Any fan of old-time music would be thrilled to receive You Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music. Poole, a banjo player from North Carolina, sold 500,000 records in the late '20s and early '30s. The novel packaging for the Columbia/Legacy set resembles an old cigar box. The three CDs feature the recordings Poole and his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, made for Columbia Records before his death in 1931. The collection also includes numerous tracks from musicians who influenced -- or were influenced by -- Poole.
The titles featuring Cash, The Band, Williams and Poole are at the top of the list of the country-related boxed sets released in 2005, but there's still a wealth of titles to explore from past years. Music is always a great gift, but don't hesitate to choose something you like, too. That way, if the person on the receiving end doesn't like, you can always drop the hint that re-gifting isn't really a bad thing after all.