The Gift of Music

Two compilations from Johnny Cash and Otis Redding make unforgettable stocking suffers.

The first is Johnny Cash's America, a two-disc CD/DVD combo released this fall on Columbia that packages the titular television documentary with its unusually purposeful soundtrack disc.

Broadcast as part of the A&E network's Biography series this fall and created by local writer/filmmaker Robert Gordon (It Came From Memphis, the Muddy Waters biography Can't Be Satisfied) in partnership with Los Angeles filmmaker Morgan Neville, Johnny Cash's America takes an unconventional look at a well-worn subject.

Rather than a straight biography of Cash, the film is more of a thematic biography of the man, his music, and the complicated relationship between the iconic Cash and the country that he loved — and that loved him right back. Rather than focusing strictly on biographical detail, it focuses on meaning, dividing its 90-minute running time into sections with titles such as "Protest," "Truth," "Faith," and "Justice."

The film mixes tremendous footage (on stage at San Quentin mocking a guard, singing "Jackson" with a sheepish but clearly turned on June Carter — and her mother, telling Dan Rather about his refusal to sing a song called "Welfare Cadillac" after Richard Nixon requests it) with a vibrant collection of interviews that ranges from family members (his sister, his cousin, his children) to contemporaries (bandmates, childhood friends, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan, the latter explaining that "Johnny Cash was more like a religious figure to me. Still is.") to inheritors (Steve Earle, Snoop Dogg, who both speak persuasively about the compassion of Cash's Folsom Prison concert) to politicians (Al Gore and Lamar Alexander offering bipartisan Tennessee testimony).

A couple of current Memphians are also in the mix: Producer Jim Dickinson offers typically smart and entertaining comments while managing to sneak in a reference to professional wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage. And local musician Amy LaVere is shown playing her upright bass in front of the Arcade Restaurant before sliding into a booth to talk about Cash's living legacy in the city that launched his career.

The soundtrack disc, like the film, refuses to merely rehash the familiar. A few Cash standards are here — his "protest song" manifest "Man in Black," early Sun hits "Big River" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" — but mostly Johnny Cash's America shines a light into the rich nooks and crannies of Cash's discography: Train songs ("Come Long and Ride This Train"), rural life ("Pickin' Time"), Native-American culture ("Big Foot"), gospel ("Were You There [When They Crucified My Lord]"), and a progressive, vernacular strain of patriotism (a previously unreleased reading of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land"). Best of all is the Dylanesque "Singing in Vietnam Talkin' Blues," a plain-spoken, passionate account of Cash and June traveling to Southeast Asia to perform for U.S. troops at the height of the war.

Even for the Johnny Cash fan that thinks they have a pretty complete collection, Johnny Cash's America is a treat.

Or, if you're more of a soul fan, you can't go wrong with Rhino Records' lavish double-disc re-release of Otis Redding's landmark 1965 album, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, arguably one of the five best studio albums recorded by a Memphis artist.

Otis Blue had been preceded by an album called Complete and Unbelievable: Otis Redding's Dictionary of Soul. But as great as Dictionary of Soul was, Otis Blue is more deserving of the title. Cut in one 24-hour period, with time off so the session guys could make their nightly live gigs, the album wraps up the entire genre — core sounds and tangents — in Redding's warm embrace.

Sam Cooke had been killed just prior to the recording, and Redding, in inheriting Cooke's mantle as the world's finest soul singer, spikes the record with revelatory covers of three Cooke classics ("Wonderful World," "Shake," "and "Change Gonna Come"). But Redding also puts his own stamp on blues (B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby"), Motown (the Temptations' "My Girl"), British soul worship (the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," itself inspired by the Stax sound and which Redding had reportedly heard for the first time the day he recorded it), Stax's own back catalog (William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water"), and other deep-soul competition (Soloman Burke's "Down in the Valley"). With originals such as the future Aretha Franklin classic "Respect" and his soon-to-be-trademark ballad "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" putting it over the top, Otis Blue stands as Redding's testament.

Rhino's two-disc re-release, which contains liner notes from Redding's widow, Zelma, and Stax scholar Rob Bowman, presents the entire 11-track album in both stereo and mono versions, allowing audiophiles out there to contrast the mixing styles and choose which they prefer. (For the record, given the sometimes-extreme channel separations on the stereo version, I much prefer the mono.) In addition, the two-disc is packed with bonus material, most notably several selections from Redding's Live in Europe and Live at the Whisky a Go Go albums.

If you know someone who could use a little soul under the tree come Christmas morning, you can't go wrong with Otis Blue.

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