Johnny Cash, "Bootleg, Vol. II": John R. Cash died in 2003, but his presence remains in his influence on generations of musicians and through posthumously released recordings.
The latest of the latter is "Bootleg, Vol. II," the second in a series drawn from Cash's own archives. Like its predecessor, it's pretty raw -- recordings off the radio and demos. But it's revealing and much of it previously unreleased.
Appropriately enough, "Bootleg, Vol. II," which was released Tuesday, opens with Cash's first show on Memphis's KWEM Radio. Likely recorded off the radio, the 15-minute program from May 21, 1955, finds Cash reading ads for the Home Equipment Company (where he worked), asking for cards and letters with requests and running through a handful of songs with the Tennessee Two -- Luther Perkins on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass.
The show is typical of its era and sheds a light on a young Cash, who hadn't quite found his sound but was coming close.
That sense continues on 11 early demos, 10 previously unreleased, in which Cash strums his acoustic guitar and works out his songs. They include "I Walk The Line," sung in higher register than the famous version, "Get Rhythm" and a pair of rockabilly classics, "You're My Baby" and "Rock and Roll Ruby," which were hits for other artists.
The disc ends with some Sun Records rarities including "New Mexico," one of his classic Western story songs, and a pair of full band demos.
Disc two is titled "The 1960s" and is made up of 25 songs, 22 completed recordings, primarily B-sides and outtakes, and three demos. Recorded from 1958 to 1969, they come from the Columbia Records archives and show Cash, who moved from Nashville to Southern California, working his way into Hollywood while continuing to create his folk-rooted country.
The Hollywood connection is obvious in songs like "Johnny Yuma Theme" (not to be confused with his hit "The Rebel -- Johnny Yuma"), written for an ABC-TV show but never used, and in his collaboration with "Bonanza" star Lorne Greene on "The Shifting, Whispering Sands."
Conveying Cash's ongoing interest in history, there are three Western songs. He also visits some old themes -- turning the girl-in-every-port cliche into a trainman's song on "Locomotive Man," going for goofy humor on "Foolish Questions," singing the 1800s folk tune "There's a Mother Always Waiting" and covering Bob Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings."
The disc ends with a pair of Cash archive demos: a pensive take on "Six White Horses" and a slower, softer version of "Come Along and Ride This Train," one of the themes of his ABC-TV show.
As is the case with all such recordings, "Bootleg, Vol. II" isn't a record for a Cash neophyte; plenty of collections out there would far better introduce the Man in Black. Nor does it come anywhere close to being a "greatest hits" in demo form. Instead, it delivers its insight into Cash down roads not traveled, songs that weren't released for various reasons, and in the works-in-progress that are demos.
That makes it instructive for musicians following the same process, musicologists, historians and Cash aficionados. But it's also a recording that can be listened to simply for pleasure, a lot of it just Cash and his guitar, telling stories in song. He did that as well as anyone. Grade: B+