To commemorate the upcoming 70th birthday of country music legend Johnny Cash (Feb. 26), Columbia Legacy will release a new compilation, "The Essential Johnny Cash," and reissue five of his vintage al

To commemorate the upcoming 70th birthday of country music legend Johnny Cash (Feb. 26), Columbia Legacy will release a new compilation, "The Essential Johnny Cash," and reissue five of his vintage albums. The 36-track "Essential" set will cull material from Cash's career on the Sun, Columbia, and Mercury labels, while the reissues concentrate on Columbia albums originally released between 1959 and 1967.

Spanning two discs, "Essential," due Feb. 12, joins a long line of previous re-packagings of Cash's recorded output (which began in 1959 with Sun's "Greatest!" collection), including Columbia/Legacy's own 1992 three-disc set "The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983)." Songs included here that were also on that set benefit from advances in digital remastering techniques, and are paired with several songs not included on that anthology of Cash's Columbia and Sun years.

The new "Essential" includes such No. 1 Billboard country singles as 1956's "I Walk the Line," 1958's "Guess Things Happen That Way," 1963's "Ring of Fire," and 1969's "A Boy Named Sue" (also a No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 hit). Also featured are several notable collaborations -- "Jackson," recorded in 1964 with wife June Carter; "Girl From the North Country," with Bob Dylan in 1969; 1980's "Song of the Patriot" with Marty Robbins; and the fruit of 1993's meeting with U2, "The Wanderer," which appeared on the band's Island set "Zooropa."

The packaging for the birthday set will feature more than 30 testimonials and well wishes to the artist from a diverse list of celebrities, including Willie Nelson, George Jones, Paul McCartney, U2's Bono and the Edge, Shelby Lynne, Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Slipknot's Shawn Crahan and Cory Taylor, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Al Gore, Nick Cave, and Trisha Yearwood.

While each attempts to explain the impact Cash has had on his or her life, actor/filmmaker Tim Robbins' words most succinctly articulate what all try to express. "Johnny Cash is fierce," he writes. "He has walked as a prisoner and as a poet, a heart as large as large, a giver, a forgiver, a lamb who lies with his lion. I am so lucky to know you. Happy Birthday, Johnnny."

On March 12, Columbia/Legacy's "American Milestones" series will expand five classic Cash albums -- 1959's "The Fabulous Johnny Cash," 1959's "Hymns by Johnny Cash," 1960's "Ride This Train: A Stirring Travelogue of America in Song and Story," 1965's "Orange Blossom Special," and 1967's "Carryin' On With Johnny Cash and June Carter." Each digitally remastered title will feature bonus tracks from the period of the original recording sessions, and will include the original and newly commissioned liner notes.

Among the bonus gems is "Oh What A Dream," now attached to "The Fabulous Johnny Cash." It's the first take of the song recorded at Cash's first Columbia recording session, with guitarist Luther Perkins, steel guitarist Don Helms, bassist Marshall Grant, drummer Morris Plamer, and pianist Marvin Hughes backing him up. Seven other tracks -- mostly alternate takes never before released in the U.S. -- round out the album.

Similarly, "Ride This Train" boasts the inclusion of a version of "The Ballad of the Harpweaver," recorded in December 1959, that has never before been released. The song, based on a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, was re-recorded in 1963 for the album "The Christmas Spirit."

Continuing the birthday celebration, in May Sony Nashville will release a Johnny Cash tribute album. Produced by Marty Stuart, the album will feature contributions from Bruce Spingsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Travis Tritt, among others.

In addition, several more reissued titles are expected through the balance of the year, according to a spokesperson. Although it has not yet been determined exactly which or how many albums will be given the revamp treatment, another batch should see the light of day in July, along with a possible live album release.

Cash, who was hospitalized twice in the past year while battling bronchitis, suffers from autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system that makes him susceptible to pneumonia. He has been hospitalized with it four times since 1998. Nonetheless, he has continued to record, releasing three studio albums in the last seven years -- "American Recordings," "Unchained," and "American III: Solitary Man" -- all produced by Rick Rubin and released on his American Recordings imprint.