Two recent rereleases by Johnny Cash raise questions about motive. 

Cashing in on Patriotism

"America (A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song)" (Columbia/Legacy)

"Ragged Old Flag" (Columbia/Legacy)

While Johnny Cash is as American as apple pie, I still think the timing of these two reissues is questionable. With the titles "America (A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song)" and "Ragged Old Flag," and each featuring an American flag on its cover, one might think these would be perfect additions to your music collection right about now. And while we're all encouraged to spend to support the economy, don't pull out your money just yet. I'd only recommend one of these.

The legendary Cash is turning 70 in February, which is ostensibly the reason for these to finally appear, digitally remastered, on CD. But I can't help but feel the rushing out of this patriotic double bill is opportunistic, given the surge in national feeling since Sept. 11. The first of the rest of the "Johnny Turns 70" celebration by Columbia/Legacy, "The Essential Johnny Cash," will arrive in stores Feb. 12.

"America" was a blatantly commercial venture in 1972, and it remains so now. On "America" Cash gives us a history lesson, with brief spoken sections, followed by songs that trace the development of our nation. While there are 21 tracks listed, nearly half are spoken word, which become tiring almost on the first listen, and certainly afterwards.

Now, I don't deny Cash the right to give us a history lesson, but I wish he had lumped all the spoken-word bits together at the end. As they are, introducing each song, they are a continual interruption. On the other hand, if you've always wanted to hear Cash reciting the Gettysburg Address, this is the CD for you. Musically, Cash is in fine form here, with good energy, and Norman Blake provides tasteful guitar background throughout, but there're only about 20 minutes of music here.

"Ragged Old Flag" offers much more. Cash's first all-original album, co-produced by Cash, includes Earl Scruggs, Carl Perkins and the Oak Ridge Boys. Released in the aftermath of Watergate, "Ragged Old Flag" takes a good hard look at our country, warts and all. The songs are often in the first person, about characters in American situations — as opposed to third person retellings of the Alamo — and they ring true. Cash did himself proud as a writer here, with some memorable melodies and excellent lyrics that offer rewarding surprises if you pay close enough attention. The Man in Black wasn't pulling any punches here, whether he turned his pen on societal ills, or internal demons.

A troubling aspect to these albums is their brevity, at 32 minutes and 29 minutes, respectively. In this day, when CDs can hold nearly 80 minutes of content, one wonders why Columbia/Legacy couldn't have combined these similarly themed efforts onto an "added-value" single release. If they had, I'd have a heartier recommendation. Heck, I'd probably even salute.


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