Johnny Cash has been anthologized so often that it's hard to get too excited about his latest box set, The Legend, even though it may be both the most complete and imaginative Cash compilation on the market. Thank goodness the same imagination has gone into the two-disc June Carter Cash collection Keep On The Sunny Side: Her Life In Music, since her life's work has never been properly compiled. Cash began her career as a child, working with her parents and siblings in The Carter Family, and went on to do guest vocals on other people's recordings and make regular appearances on country radio shows across the southeast, as well as cutting a few singles on her own. She didn't have the strongest voice, but it had character, and she developed a reputation for her sweet, self-deprecating sense of humor and her deep connection to American folk songs.
Keep On The Sunny Side ranges through Cash's life, leaning light on the latter two of her three completed albums (both from the five-year period before her 2003 death), but presenting her solo debut, 1975's charming Appalachian Pride, almost in its entirety. A lot of the lesser-known early cuts are eye-openers, like Homer & Jethro's cornpone parody version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Cash's pause-free musical joke "No Swallerin' Place," both of which exemplify her redneck-naïf persona. Equally strong are the lovers' spat songs she recorded with her sisters—"He Went Slippin' Around" and "Well I Guess I Told You Off"—and her solo take on spurned love, "The Heel," with its western twang, spooky organ, galloping rhythms, and stung rush of words. Keep On The Sunny Side's Johnny-era songs move toward the corny-but-catchy, like the Kris Kristofferson-penned "The Loving Gift" and the family project "Ole Slewfoot," which features guest appearances by all of their kids. But the Appalachian Pride material is the strongest, bearing the full weight of mid-'70s Nashville production without collapsing. Cash adopts a more earnest and poignant tone on songs like Tom T. Hall's haunting "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," as well as ones she co-wrote, like "The Shadow Of A Lady," "Gatsby's Restaurant," and the title track, all of which hearken back to folk classics while affirming mountain values.
Where's Cash's legacy today? Perhaps in Abigail Washburn, whose debut album, Song Of The Traveling Daughter, displays more pop sense than the average banjo-picking folk troubadour. The record kicks off with "Sometimes," a full-on jig-and-reel original that's built for clogging but also expresses the anxieties and capriciousness of an itinerant young woman. Washburn later tackles traditional fare on the medley "Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo," which highlights her nimble picking, and on the lament "Nobody's Fault But Mine," which highlights her expressive voice. But Washburn originals like the slinky "Coffee's Cold" and the slow-soaring "Red & Blazing" are what make Song Of The Traveling Daughter special. Like Cash before her, Washburn is infatuated with the old and traditional, but uses it to describe how she's feeling right now.