Home Geek LifeCulture Bandbox Unboxed Vol. 7 – Johnny Cash

Bandbox Unboxed Vol. 7 – Johnny Cash

by Patrick Phillips

Prepare your turntable for some heavy rotation bangers vinyl fans, ’cause there’s a killer new deep dive record club in town, and you’re gonna want to get your mitts on the band-themed short stack of wax they’re delivering every month. It’s called Bandbox, and it’s not like any vinyl subscription service out there.

Groove Is In The Bandbox

What’s the big deal, you ask? To begin with, the wax warriors behind Bandbox are delivering not just one album to your doorstep every month, but two! And not to overstate the obvious, but the only thing better than getting one new record in the mail every month, is getting twice that number. With Bandbox focusing their packages on a single artist/group every month (Neil Young, Weezer, Ride, St. VincentDire Straits, and Joy Division/New Order have already been featured), you can be certain they’re digging deep into the archives to send some truly unsung sonic treasures your way.

To keep things interesting, Bandbox is throwing a hitch into their album selection process. That means the first of the mystery discs subscribers receive will be a staple album from said artist’s slate of releases. The second mystery disc is where the deep dive aspect kicks in, with Bandbox pledging to pick an overlooked gem from the artist’s back catalogue. And that gem may or may not be the same album for every subscriber.

If that bold choice isn’t quite enticing enough, you should know that Bandbox is also stuffing every box with a lavishly animated, track-by-track listening companion for the featured album – not to mention a stylish fanzine tracking the artist’s career and releases. And all that can be yours for the beyond reasonable price of just $49 a month.

Before we get too far into this month’s box, those of you wary of letting a group of complete strangers “surprise” you with artist/album selections every month should know that Team Bandbox has already setup an exchange program which allows you to swap out records you don’t want for ones you do, so long as they’re available in the Bandbox archives. Hell, they’ll even let you integrate your Discogs account to ensure you never receive something you already have in your collection, thus limiting the need to make those swaps.

If you’re really, really wary of surprises, Team Bandbox will even let you tap out of the coming month’s artist and choose from their back catalogue of albums. If that’s still not good enough, you can even “pause” your subscription at any time you like. It’s unlikely you’ll want to “pause” anything once you’ve signed up and experienced Bandbox for yourself. And for that relatively modest sum, you should try to chill out, embrace the adventure, and get down with whatever vibes Bandbox is bringing.

Let The Great World Spin

He was born to dirt poor cotton farmers in rural Arkansas (the fourth of seven siblings), and came of age getting down to the Gospel music he heard on local radio stations. Gifted a guitar in his youth, and taught to play by his mother, he was writing songs by the time he reached his 12th birthday. In his teens, his voice dropped several octaves to the burly baritone he’d come to be known for. In 1954, he found himself with a new wife, and a new job selling appliances in Memphis, Teneessee. A year later, he’d find himself in the cozy confines of Sun Studios, cutting tracks for the man who discovered Elvis Presley. He’d also find himself on the way to legit superstardom via one of the more tumultuously enigmatic careers in music history.

That career was driven by a singular,  soul-searching journey through the lands of gospel, blues, rockabilly, and outlaw country. One driven by hard living, hard loving, and a tireless need to experience and record humanity at its messiest, and most vulnerable. Though it ended almost two decades ago, that life can be still be examined by exploring one of the most distinctive songbooks in the history of American music. The one belonging to the iconic figure we commonly refer to as “The Man in Black.”

In case you haven’t figured out what’s in January’s Bandbox yet,  get ready to say “Hello” to a pair of stone cold classics from Mr. Johnny Cash.

Of course, an artist of Johnny Cash’s stature should need no introduction. He is, after all, a true icon of modern American music who has inspired musicians from every generation that came in his wake. Cash’s journey began with Sun Records’ in 1955, and while “The Man in Black” didn’t stay long under the Sun Records shingle, the label still managed to package several of Cash’s unreleased recordings into a second album. It was called Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous, and it’s this month’s featured Bandbox selection.

While you’re gazing at that lovely cover, be sure to check the little sticker at the top for some pertinent info about Bandbox’s first featured selection for 2020.

Be sure to take a moment to ogle the lovely little Sun Record Company insignia as well.

Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous (1958)

Though Johnny Cash’s career began in Memphis with a stint at Sam Phillips’ iconic Sun Studios, his time with Sun Record Company was relatively short-lived. In fact, Cash released only two full-length records for Sun, 1956’s With His Hot and Blue Guitar, and 1958’s Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous. As it happens, by the time Cash’s second Sun Records album was released, he’d already left Sam Phillips behind for a far more lucrative deal with Columbia Records, who released The Fabulous Johnny Cash the same year.

Still, with instant classics like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” under his belt with Sun, it’s hard to imagine Cash would’ve become the iconic figure we know had he not cut his teeth in Phillips’ tiny little Memphis studio. As such, one could hardly blame Phillips for going ahead and releasing  more of Cash’s recordings even after “The Man in Black” had left Sun Records in his wake. And if With His Hot and Blue Guitar saw Cash establish himself as a brooding, countrified troubadour with a penchant for sorrowful, soul-searching romanticism, the songs Phillips released on Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous did nothing but cement Cash’s growing mythos.

As for the songs on Johnny Cash’s second album for Sun Record Company, it’s hardly the greatest hits sort of record the title implies. That’s not to say the songs themselves aren’t worthy of the title, of course. Quite the opposite, in fact, with the 12  rock-a-billy tinged tracks all painting a fiery portrait of an artist fully in command of his sound and song-craft. But the fact remains that – save for a couple of noteworthy singles and “I Walk The Line”(also released on With His Hot and Blue Guitar) – most of the songs on Sings hadn’t been released prior. Among those tracks are unheralded Cash classics like “Don’t Make Me Go,” “Guess Things Happen That Way,” and “You’re The Nearest Thing To Heaven.” All of which are rife for discovery (or re-discovery) decades after their release.

Now, let’s have a look at Bandbox’s deep dive album for January – which is one of the centerpieces from Johnny Cash’s legendary American Recordings sessions. And if any of those recordings deserve a second, third, or hundredth revisit, it’s the second album from those sessions, Unchained.

That’s especially true as this sexy, 180g pressing is part of the mostly fantastic Back To Black reissue series.

American II: Unchained (1996)

By the 1993, Johnny Cash had already seen and accomplished pretty much everything an artist can imagine. He’d recorded with Elvis, sold untold millions of records, made untold millions of dollars, had his own television show, tangled with a U.S. President, triumphed in one of the great love stories of the modern era, and suffered through a near bottomless pit of addiction and despair, riding the subsequent career highs and lows that accompany each. He’d also been living and recording in relative obscurity for the better part of at the past decade, and had been unceremoniously dropped by Columbia seven years prior.

It was a bit of a surprise then that Johnny Cash would attempt to mount a comeback in the early ’90s. Even more surprising was the fact that famed hip hop producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC) was the driving force behind that comeback. One who pushed Cash to do something he’d never done before – play a live show completely solo. Yet Rubin made that momentous event happen in front of a packed house at L.A.’s The Viper Room in 1993, and it became ground zero for one of the most fruitful collaborations in Johnny Cash’s lauded career.

Of course, by the time that solo set occurred, Cash had already signed on to Rubin’s American Recordings label, with the pair having worked through many of the songs that would reintroduce “The Man in Black” to a whole new generation of music lovers. Dubbed the “American Recordings,” the resulting albums would also signal the beginning of a dramatic final act to a life and career defined by dramas major and minor.

Comprised of somber originals, soulful standards, and breathtaking re-imaginings of popular songs from old and new (from Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” to an iconic cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”), the “American Recordings” were also possessed of a heart-wrenching, raw nerve prescience that made crystal clear the end was very much on Johnny Cash’s mind. Unchained was the second album Cash and Rubin released on American Recordings, and though it’s a bit more polished than its bare bones predecessor, the songs land with just as much weight and vitality. But I’m assuming you know all that already. Because I’m assuming you’ve spent some time in sonic temple that Cash and Rubin concocted with the “American Recordings.” And if you haven’t, well, you really do owe it to yourself to experience the gospels according to “The Man in Black.”

A Cardboard Box For Sharing Music

Bandbox is chiefly concerned with living up to that, “cardboard box for sharing music” definition, not to mention their rep as the deep dive record club. With two full length albums inside, it absolutely lives up to both concepts. What’s so cool about Bandbox is the founders don’t just understand that part of “sharing” music means engaging in all manner of discourse surrounding bands and songs, they actually revel in the act of sharing. And the album/artist inspired magazines included in every month’s box are all about exploring thoughts and ideas inspired by the artists who created the chosen records.

As such, Team Bandbox continues to deliver outstanding content within the pages of those zines. This month’s “Fan Talks” puts Cash’s early recordings front and center with a beautifully detailed, track by track exploration of Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous complete with more stellar original artwork from Bandbox’s in-house illustrator Cou Feis. Meanwhile, “Band Dox” features an in depth breakdown Johnny Cash’s enduring legacy, accompanied by a treasure trove of Cash pics from various stages of his decades-long career.

Let’s have a gander at Bandbox’s Johnny Cash “Fan Talks” first.

Now, let’s have a butcher’s at this month’s “Band Dox.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like it’s high time we got a look at the waxy goodness inside the January Bandbox already. Fist up, this month’s featured selection, Johnny Cash’s Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous.

Just FYI – there’s a few lovely words about “The Man in Black” on the back cover, so you’ll want to do some reading before you go digging in that sleeve.

Don’t worry, ’cause what’s inside is worth the wait – i.e. this glorious slab of wax.

And this oh-so sexy Sun Record Company label.

Next up, a modern classic from a true legend, replete with some jaw-dropping cover art. Here’s Johnny Cash’s Unchained.

There’s some serious goodies printed on Unchained‘s inner sleeve, by the way. Including this marvelous portrait of the artist as a young man.

Flip that inner sleeve over, and you’ll find some meticulously chosen words about the songs on Unchained from Mr. Cash himself. There’s also some album credits and such listed there too.

Be sure not to overlook the Unchained download card either, ’cause I can assure you it’s a very headphone friendly album.

Oh, and you’d better believe there’s another lovely slab of glossy black wax inside that sleeve to boot.

Battle of the Bandbox

Look, there’s two new records in every single Bandbox. While it’s truly marvelous that the B-box team is doubling down on the wax every month, subscribers are certain to find themselves in the unique position of choosing a favorite between the pair. Not gonna lie either, the January Battle of the Bandbox has been one of the hardest decisions yet. On the one hand, we’ve got Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous, which remains a staggering document of an artist already forging his path to becoming an icon. On the other hand, American II: Unchained finds an artist closer to the end of his life than the beginning, and delivering some of the most intricately introspective recordings of his career …  including a jaw-dropping cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.”

Difficult decisions must be made none the less, so let’s all bow down to January’s Battle of the Bandbox champ, Johnny Cash’s American II: Unchained. Feel free to disagree if you like, but I’ll take the brooding, stripped bare version of Cash found in the American Recordings sessions over songs from pretty much any era of the man’s life. And if you happen to disagree, I’d urge you to revisit Unchained immediately, ’cause I feel like you might change your mind once you re-discover the unfiltered power and passion captured in the Cash’s voice and music over the album’s 14 tracks.

It’s the Bandbox You Want, And The Bandbox You Need

Look, the so-called “vinyl boom” is not gonna fade away anytime soon. If you’re one of the many who have found themselves giddily wrapped up in the madness, you already aware there are a million and one different options for getting your hands on some sweet, sweet wax. While I’d always encourage you to shop first at your local record store, I also understand that subscription vinyl clubs are an excellent way to help fill in/round out your growing collection.

If you’re looking to round out that collection a little sooner than later, a vinyl club that’s down to send you two worthy records every month is a pretty good way to go. With Bandbox delivering high-quality pressings of albums by popular artists, they’re giving you a chance to both grow your collection with lust-worthy popular discs and discover deep dive treats you might’ve previously overlooked. That savvy mix of quality and variety should make it easy for diehard vinyl fans and newbs alike to board the Bandbox bandwagon. Make sure you get on board today!

A huge THANKS to the folks at Bandbox for sponsoring this subscription. If you like what you’ve seen here, you can head over to the official Bandbox website and sign up to have a sexy new Bandbox delivered to your own front door every single month. Pro tip – you can also get 50% off your first Bandbox by using the code FIDDY at checkout. Do it now, and get ready to get down to some Arctic Monkeys madness in February!

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