Sorting through the stacks of classic country reissues


Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Classic country music doesn't die. But unfortunately, in many cases it just sits gathering dust in some record label vault.

With few exceptions, most influential studio albums by legendary artists are out of print. The Nashville way is to ignore original albums and just pile together a greatest hits set that's usually poorly packaged. Many times, the sound quality hasn't been updated. It's a sure way to zap the glory out of songs that defined the genre.

So Sony Nashville's American Milestones series is impressive. The label took 10 albums - from icons such as Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Marty Robbins, George Jones and Willie Nelson - and repackaged, remastered and re-released them. Each CD contains sought-after bonus tracks, new liner notes and unpublished photos.

These are landmark recordings, not a dud in the bunch, but just how does the revamping process rate? Here's a look at the American Milestones discs:

* Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (The Complete 1969 Concert) - That's right, the whole show. Previously released in edited form, the Man in Black's benchmark, 18-track live recording is now uncut. Classic songs all of them - "I Walk the Line," "A Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" - coupled with Mr. Cash's irreverent attitude. Great between-song chatter, too.
Remaster rating: A

* George Jones, I Am What I Am (1980) - In retrospect, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was a daring song for the beginning of the '80s. Sadder than a two-car funeral procession and devoid of a sing-along hook, the tune is a stinging reminder of Mr. Jones' vocal genius. Other gems here: "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and his version of "Good Hearted Woman."
Remaster rating: B+

* Tammy Wynette, Stand By Your Man (1968) - Nobody can do catch-in-the-voice the way the late Ms. Wynette did. She wept to music. The album's title cut is, of course, the country standard that became her anthem. But don't ignore powerful cuts such as "My Arms Stay Open Late" and "Joey."
Remaster rating: A

* The Original Carter Family, Can the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music's First Family (1935, 1940) - Twenty songs, 17 from 1935, 3 from 1940, serve as a reminder of the influence this familial trio had on the roots of both country and bluegrass. The close harmonies, the acoustic sound, the plaintive deliveries shaped the genre as we know it.
Remaster rating: B

* Willie Nelson, Stardust (1978) - The biggest-selling album of the batch, and perhaps the most unexpectedly so. Texas outlaw Nelson turned to the American pop songbook and covered "Georgia On My Mind" and "September Song," among others. Still compelling today, as much for its stark beauty as for Mr. Nelson's interpretive skills.
Remaster rating: A

* Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959) - The Arizona gentleman with the smooth baritone recorded this ode to the West at the turn of the '60s. Includes the robust cowboy tune "Big Iron" and the full-length version of the inimitable story song, "El Paso." Also, great black-on-red album cover.
Remaster rating: B+

* Johnny Horton, The Spectacular Johnny Horton (1960) - Thanks to the 1959 crossover staple "The Battle of New Orleans," the late Mr. Horton will forever be remembered as a singer of "saga songs," musical tales that told the story of pioneers, prospectors and Native Americans. This album contains a few of those ("Cherokee Boogie") as it showcases his pliable baritone.
Remaster rating: B

* Merle Haggard, Big City (1981) - The poet of the people was never afraid to tackle socially conscious issues. Hence the title cut, later covered by piercing vocalist Iris DeMent. He could do a traditional country ballad, too, such as "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)." Thought-provoking stuff, which means it's quintessential Hag.
Remaster rating: B+

* Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (1968) - The predecessor to At San Quentin is more somber in scope and not as immediate as its famed sequel. But there's no denying the melancholy, sometimes morbid pull of "I Still Miss Someone," "Cocaine Blues" and "The Long Black Veil." Mr. Cash slapped the late '60s, colored by flower children and psychedelia, with dashes of dark reality.
Remaster rating: B+

* Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger (1975) - Widely considered the album that began the outlaw country movement, turning the industry's focus on Austin as the style's breeding ground. The CD was also an ambitious concept, a song cycle about the Old West travels of a preacher. Stranger remains a bare-bones record, a testament to Mr. Nelson's raw talents as a singer, songwriter, picker and producer.
Remaster rating: A