Why Johnny Cash's American Recordings Are The Perfect Epitaph To His Career

With Rick Rubin behind the glass screen, J.C managed to find a whole new audience in the twilight of his life...
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Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

There’s probably not much that hasn’t already been written about Johnny Cash. The subject of countless articles, numerous books and at least one film, The Man in Black has had his life and work so picked over by critics that it’s hard to find anything really new to say. But the recent release of a chunky boxed set of all six of Cash’s American Recordings LPs offers a chance to look again at these incredible records and how they tell the story of Cash’s final years.

In the early nineties, Cash was out of work, having been dropped by Mercury after a string of unsuccessful and critically ignored efforts; the last of which has perhaps the worst album cover of all time and was only considered worthy of a run of 500 copies. For an artist of his calibre, it was a drastic career low. It’s perhaps not surprising that, when he was approached by Rick Rubin, Cash leapt at the chance to find a new audience. The resulting album, American Recordings, is in some ways a classic country record. In the finest traditions of the genre, it’s an equal mix of original compositions and cover songs, with a stripped down musical approach produced by being recording (in the most part) in Cash’s own living room.

A characteristic of all the albums is the foregrounding of Cash’s incredible voice over relatively sparse musical accompaniment. In addition to freeing Cash from the constraints of over-production, Rubin also made some creative suggestions around the content of the album, recruiting a variety of lyricists to pen songs for the album. An unexpected inclusion was the song Thirteen, penned by Glenn Danzig of hair metal superheroes Danzig, which Cash gives his signature lonesome vocal twist. The effect was instantaneous and electric. Cash’s eighty-first album (I’ll wait here while you read that again) was a critical smash and brought his music to a new, younger audience. Cash would perform at Glastonbury that summer and described his reception there as one of the highlights of his career.

The second album in this set, Unchained, focuses more on covers and introduced a broader musical palette of backing singers and musicians, with Cash and Rubin moving into a number of different studios. The closing track on the album, 'I’ve Been Everywhere', is a cover but demonstrates perfectly one of the themes of the American series: Cash’s ability to take a song and make it his own. As with so many that would follow, Cash’s version of this tune has become all but definitive. Backed by a strong band led by Tom Petty, the second record in the series finds Cash in playful mood, clearly loving experimenting with new material and old standards.

It wouldn’t last forever, though. Shortly after the album’s release, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition that would eventually take his life. During a live date that year, Cash announced his illness to the audience and the world after collapsing onstage. It’s a testament to the man that, despite being given only 18 months to live, he would go on to live for a further six years and record some of the finest music of his staggering career. Treatment for his condition would delay his return to the studio and, after a four year gap, the third American album (subtitled Solitary Man) opens with a statement of intent: a cover of Tom Petty’s 'I Won’t Back Down'. This record is noticeably darker and more sombre in tone. It can be a challenging listen at times, with an angry and almost monotone rendering of Nick Cave’s 'The Mercy Seat' being particularly heart-rending. The contemporary covers are still present here as well, with Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy) number 'I See a Darkness' given the Cash treatment. Perhaps the standout track, though, is a cover of U2’s 'One'. Cash’s voice has never sounded stronger than it does here, defiant in the face of his recent news.

The next album, American IV: The Man Comes Around is probably the best known, of the set, and for good reason. The last album released before Cash passed away in 2003, it is a perfect synthesis of what went before and contains the best-known songs from this period of his recording career. It’s a tour de force, a magisterial record with too many highlights to mention here. The first side of the album is by turns the sound of a man making peace ('Give My Love to Rose', 'Bridge Over Troubled Water') and remaining defiant until the very last ('The Man Comes Around', 'Personal Jesus'). Cash’s cover of 'Hurt' has been rightly praised from all corners. Trent Reznor admitted that he was initially sceptical about the idea of Cash’s covering the song, but was deeply moved by the final result. It’s impossible not to agree with him: Cash’s vocal performance is so poignant it can still tear lumps out of your soul over ten years and many soundtrack appearances later.

Cash died in 2003, four months after the death of his wife June, to whom he had been married for 53 years. What followed highlights just how Cash spent his final years. Two posthumous albums (the last two in this boxset: A Hundred Highways and Ain’t No Grave) and the extensive outtakes compilation Unearthed indicated just how prolific and driven Cash had remained until the very end. It’s been suggested that another three or four albums-worth of material is still unreleased from Cash’s various American sessions. Material for the final two records in this box was clearly chosen by Rubin to provide an epitaph for Cash. The albums feature his last song (Like The 309) and a selection of more reflective numbers – a cover of Tom Paxton’s 'Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound' being a particularly good example. There’s also an emphasis on Cash’s spiritual life, reminding us that he remained strong in his faith until the very end.

What’s brought together in this box is the resurrection, epitaph and eulogy of one of music’s most influential stars. If you’re looking for a varied colour palette, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for an open, honest portrait of The Man in Black, it’s right here.

Suggested Spotify Playlist

  1. The Man Comes Around
  2. I Won’t Back Down
  3. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream
  4. Give My Love to Rose
  5. Hurt
  6. Let the Train Blow the Whistle
  7. Four Strong Winds
  8. One
  9. The Man Who Couldn’t Cry
  10. I’ve Been Everywhere
  11. Like the 309
  12. I See a Darkness
  13. Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound 
  1. The Complete American Recordings Of Johnny Cash is released on 11th May. Listening to it might make you a better person. Or at least love Johnny more. Either way,  win.