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VOL. 36 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 27, 2012

Producer keeps new Cash releases flowing

By Tim Ghianni

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Producer and music archaeologist Gregg Geller

Music archaeologist Gregg Geller – a producer who relishes in the reclamation or discovery of lost and oft-blemished treasures from the archival tape vaults – took the trip of his lifetime to Hendersonville in 2005.

Awaiting him was part of the destiny that was laid out when he bought the Sun version of I Walk the Line in 1956. “I was 9 years old. I’ve been a fan of Johnny Cash ever since.”

Actually the 64-year-old is a fan of all things Sun, from Elvis to Jerry Lee to Carl Perkins. But the purchase of that single birthed a passion that has driven the last six years of his life. And this particular treasure hunt is not over yet.

Geller and Steve Berkowitz are producers of the Columbia Legacy Johnny Cash Bootleg series of recordings. The latest, Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth, was released this month.

Like its predecessors, Bootleg IV sprang from a meeting inside the disheveled House of Cash on Gallatin Road in Hendersonville back in 2005.

The material is “the result of a trip to Nashville that a bunch of us (from Columbia’s Legacy archival label) took in 2005, where we met with John Carter (Cash), and he took us through the House of Cash, which he was in the process of closing up. His father had died two years prior to that time.”

The old building, a mile or so from John and June Carter Cash’s rustic mansion built into the cliffs of Old Hickory Lake, had been used as a museum, souvenir stand and recording studio.

“They were getting rid of a lot of stuff and keeping a lot of stuff. … In closets and a room behind the control room of the studio was stored a tremendous amount of tape, and John Carter very wisely didn’t want to get rid of those tapes without knowing what was on them,” Geller says.

“So we agreed to have them sent up to New York. I spent many months listening to and cataloging it. It was the source of most of the material that has been on the bootlegs.

“We call them ‘the Hendersonville tapes,’” he says, happily recounting the treasure hunt that laid open a vein of Johnny Cash material that may be mined – as long as the quality remains – for years to come.

“They’re not all masters. They are demos and copies. In some cases, the copies that were in the Hendersonville tapes led us to further search for the actual masters.”

Geller’s work first led to the 2006 release of Bootleg I: The Personal Files, a collection of solo work by Cash from 1972-82.

May 2010 saw Bootleg II: From Memphis to Hollywood, a collection of Sun and Columbia recordings from 1954-1969, detailing Cash’s start with Sam Phillips to the years when he became a TV and film star.

Bootleg III: Live Around the World, pretty much described by its title, features a lifetime of live performance, from USO stops in Vietnam to Richard Nixon’s White House to Newport Folk Festival.

But the newest Bootleg IV – deeply delving into the spiritual side of Johnny Cash – would likely be closest to the heart of the Man in Black.

“His favorite music was his gospel music from his roots. He recorded some beautiful material,” says Lou Robin, Cash’s longtime manager and friend, during an interview from his Los Angeles offices.

Some of the material on this new release has been heard before. For example the first 20 songs on the first disc come from an under-heard album called A Believer Sings the Truth, that was released on an offshoot of Columbia.

Same thing for the next four songs on the first disc, which all came from an album called I Believe. Then there is Truth, a previously unreleased take on a song that popular culture says came from a poem written by Muhammad Ali.

“That’s a song that has long rumored to have been written by Muhammad Ali and presented to Johnny Cash and recorded by Cash, but never released,” says Geller. “When I found the tape, I pretty quickly decided it had not been written by Muhammad Ali. It didn’t sound like his style of poetry.”

Instead it was written by Sufi leader Hazrat Inayat Khan, and one of the lines – “the soul of truth is God” – is fuel for the album title.

“Ali would frequently copy down verse he liked and hand it to people,” Geller says. “It didn’t mean he wrote it. … In one sense I’m deflating the myth,” he says. “You win some, you lose some.”

Geller takes a deep breath and continues describing this powerful collection. “We’ve only discussed half of the album. The roots are in the Hendersonville tapes. The first 12 tracks on disc two was a taped copy of an album that never had been released.

“The second half of disc two did not originate in the Hendersonville tapes,” Geller explains. “This is a case of research in the Sony archives yielding clues that led to yet another album (Johnny Cash: Gospel Singer) This was recorded in 1983 (again for a label offshoot), produced by Mary Stuart … It had been pulled from release.”

The songs later were released on Word Records (distributed by CBS), he says. But he discovered the tapes plus four outtakes in the Sony archives.

While the archaeologist has explored the material, its public release is overseen by the two men closest to the late singer, John Carter Cash and Lou Robin, who serve as executive producers.

“They give us the blessing to proceed and when all is said and done, they either approve or disapprove,” says Geller, who also says he owes a debt to another close friend, Rosanne Cash, to make sure what he does with John R. Cash’s work is reputable and representative.

In addition to his bootleg producing, Geller’s spent the last six months on what he calls “the piece de resistance” that will come out later this year: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection, a 63-CD remastered treasure.

The package consists of 59 Columbia albums (60 CDs in this project).

“His first 19 albums on Columbia are going to be in mono for the first time on CD,” Geller says. “Then there are going to be three CDs of bonus material.”

One of those CDs is a collection of 28 sides that Cash did for Sun Records before coming to Nashville.

The last two CDs are singles or B-sides that were never on albums or that were guest appearances on other people’s albums.

What he calls “a pretty nifty little package” also will include the original album sleeves reproduced.

Even this old pro at musical archaeology can’t hide his glee when discussing both the project and the reason why there remains enough interest in Cash to warrant continued searching through the Hendersonville tapes and label vaults.

The Man in Black is the reason this work is worthwhile. “I would say that his life story is a compelling one,” says Geller. “And even though he is no longer physically among us, his physical presence was hard to ignore.

“But when all is said and done, it still comes down to the music. His music is timeless. He had a style that was unique unto itself. .. He didn’t do Nashville records. He did Johnny Cash records and they sound as current today as when they were released.”

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