The Complete Mercury Recordings brings together Johnny Cash’s five albums for Mercury made between 1986 and 1991, as well as various bonus tracks and also the supergroup album Class of ‘55.
Class of ’55, released in 1986, is very much the best album of the bunch. Cash teams up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison for the LP. It is, in many ways, a sequel to the live The Survivors album from a few years earlier, which featured Lewis and Perkins, but not Orbison. There are some wonderful moments in this enjoyable nostalgia trip, most notably the tribute to Elvis, We Remember the King, and the eight-minute romp through Big Train from Memphis. But one thing is clear – this isn’t a Cash album, even if he does take centre stage for a couple of numbers.
Cash’s tenure at Mercury really began with Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, released in 1987. It’s a decent effort, opening with Cash belting his way through Elvis Costello’s The Big Light. Cash had never been against recording songs by “modern” songwriters, and in the past had embraced the music of Dylan, Kristofferson and Springsteen. He would go on to record Hidden Shame, also by Costello, while at Mercury, before recording all manner of contemporary songs during his final decade with Rick Rubin. The rest of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town is less interesting, although perfectly enjoyable, but it barely made a dent in the country music charts.
The next two albums had specific themes. Water From the Wells of Home is essentially a duets album, with so many guest stars that one sometimes forgets that it was even issued under Cash’s name. There are expected collaborations with members of the Cash family, but also Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney, and Glen Campbell, among others. However, the star power didn’t help to produce a distinguished product or make it do better in the charts than its predecessor. Instead, it’s actually rather dull. It is presented in the current set with two bonus tracks that are early mixes of songs on the album.
The next album was also a special project, with Cash revisiting his hits and signature songs on Classic Cash. The 20-song album presents us with no surprises, but it does remind us that, despite the mediocre albums of the 1980s, Cash was still capable of making good music. None of these remakes are better than the originals, but they are one of the few occasions where an artist revisits their hits in the studio later in their career and the results are very good – Sedaka’s remakes in the late 1980s (due to a change of label) for his Timeless greatest hits album were also examples of where the practice works. Classic Cash is undoubtedly the best of the Mercury albums, although purists will tell you otherwise. But it has the best songs and the best performances – and it sounds even better in the “early mix” disc or all twenty songs that sounds considerably less “eighties” than the final versions (which are also included).
The two final albums, Boom Chicka Boom and The Mystery of Life, are very much like continuations of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town. They are fine, but unexciting. The liner notes of the new boxed set gives us a clue why – Boom Chicka Boom was pieced together from sessions spread over two years, and some of The Mystery of Life, Cash’s final album for Mercury, were leftovers from his first, Johnny Cash is Coming to Town. Listeners of country music didn’t care about the music that Cash was making at the time – and it appears that Cash didn’t care either.
It’s nice to have all of this material in one place, and the alternate takes etc are nice to have, too. The music is solid country – but solid recordings were not enough to reboot a career that had been declining in sales for fifteen years. Some of the re-recordings of songs available on earlier albums give us a clue as to the problem here. Take a listen to the Mercury version of The Ballad of Barbara, and then listen to the version on The Last Gunfighter Ballad from ten years earlier. They sound almost the same. Sure, production techniques had changed a little, but Cash sounded no different, and neither did the arrangements.
In short, in the late 1980s he was making the same albums as he made in the late 1970s. Each one of the albums over that ten year period had moments that were very good indeed, and some albums were better than others (The Baron, Johnny 99, Rockabilly Blues), but country music had changed and Cash hadn’t changed with it. There’s evidence a-plenty here that Cash was no longer interested in recording in the studio, and perhaps he would have walked away from it completely if it hadn’t been for Rick Rubin coming on the scene and persuading Cash that he could be relevant again. Certainly, no-one buying the predictable The Mystery of Life in 1991 could have predicted the final chapter in Cash’s career.