Johnny Cash and the American Recordings
Fri, 03 Sep 2010 10:57:18
Johnny Cash is known not only for his seemingly endless amount of quality music, but the rollercoaster lifestyle in which the country music star lead. From drugs to infidelities, to a notorious handful of run-ins with the law, The Man In Black lived life to the fullest, and died on the summit of success, adoration from his fans as well as peers intact and stronger than ever. A comprehensive look at the man’s career would require a novels worth of invested time and work, and while I’d love to tackle a project of such nature, that sort of assignment wouldn’t fit in too well on artistdirect.com (I don’t know many who’ve got hours upon hours to invest staring at one website in order to catch up on their Johnny Cash facts), so I’ve chosen to isolate Cash’s later years and final recordings, The American Recordings sessions.
Following a brief and somewhat tumultuous relationship with Mercury Records in the late 1980‘s, Johnny Cash found himself approached by world renown producer Rick Rubin. Rubin signed Cash to his record label American Recordings in the early 1990‘s, and under the successful producers supervision Cash recorded American Recordings in 1993 (to be released in ‘94). The album marked the first of six eventual American installments that played host to a diverse selection of original songs and contemporary cover works; four of which were released while Cash still graced this earth. The final two projects American V: A Hundred Highways, and American VI: Ain’t No Grave posthumously.
American Recordings (1994): The majority of American Recordings was recorded in the comfort of Cash’s own home. His only acoustical support came in the form of a single C.F. Martin dreadnought six-string guitar. The recordings are stripped to the barest of bones, and the personal verdure of Johnny’s craft is delivered with precise distinction; the emotional outpour from The Man in Black is both unmistakable and unbridled.
The album’s opener “Delia’s Gone” was released as the lead single, and while the tune failed to leave a lasting mark upon the Country Billboard charts, it’s video did manage to reignite an interest in Cash’s career, as much, if not more so with pop followers than country or folk. “Delia’s Gone” was previously recorded by Cash for his 13th studio album The Sound of Johnny Cash, which was released in 1962.
Also amongst the album’s stars are the Glenn Danzig penned “Thirteen”, “The Beast In Me”, which was originally written and recorded by Cash’s own step son Nick Lowe, and an excellent rendition of Jimmy Driftwood’s classic “Tennessee Stud” . While Cash crafted some beautiful covers, some of American Recordings’ finest moments and strongest lyrics come from the mind of Cash himself as both “Let The Train Blow the Whistle” and “Drive On” are attractive offerings.
American II: Unchained (1996): Unlike American Recordings, Unchained saw Johnny Cash team up with legendary folk-rockers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; the end result was a uniquely modern rockabilly affect that somehow generates a simultaneous sense of nostalgia, as well as originality. I wouldn’t call it a match made in heaven, at least not until Tom and the Heartbreakers head to the grave (for the love of God let’s hope that’s still decades off), but I would call it an excellent mesh of revolutionized folk, rock and roll, and of course, a little trademark Johnny Cash country swagger.
An amazing depiction of Soundgarden’s hit single “Rusty Cage” was released to radio, and once again, caught the attention of a younger generation of listeners. Cash’s rendition drastically alters the focal points of the original, and in turn unmasks new light on Chris Cornell’s inspired lyrics. A Cut-and-dried reboot of Geoff Mack’s absurdly successful composition “I’ve Been Everywhere” was released as the follow-up single, and picked up some television time when Choice Hotels utilized a clip of Cash’s cover for advert purposes.
From Beck to Tom Petty himself, the cover work of Unchained spans from contemporary to vintage. The true glamour of the project is the natural cohesiveness with which the album comes together. Fantastic tracks like “Rowboat”, “Sea Of Heartbreak”, “Memories Are Made of This”, “Spiritual” (which features a guest appearance from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and “Southern Accent” all illuminate the clever genius behind this monumental Grammy Award winning record.
American III: Solitary Man (2000): The four years between the releases of Unchained and Solitary Man afforded Cash an ugly decline in health. Hospital visits became more frequent, and death, while imminent for all, seemed to be tapping on the shoulder of Johnny Cash. Forced to delay recordings, and cancel tour dates, Cash still refused to succumb to his ailments. Rather, he chose to record a string of legendary ballads relevant to his mental and physical state of health, and once more, Tom Petty came along for a length of the ride.
A cover of U2‘s smash hit “One”, Petty’s inspiring “Won’t Back Down”, and the somber David Allen Coe penned “Would You Lay with Me (In A Field of Stone)” were all direct reflections of Cash’s state of concern. In hindsight, knowing The Man In Black had begun his trek down home stretch, these specific songs generate powerful emotional responses with today’s listeners. Solitary Man summoned a level of empathy from fans that sparked more than sympathy, and concern, but determination and support as well. Followers lined up in more than record stores, they stood firmly behind Cash and recognized the man as the vulnerable hero he always was, rather than the intangible musical icon who’d soared to such great heights as to create an unbreakable aura.
The success and subsequent critical recognition Cash eventually received for Solitary Man still reverberates with fans. A Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance echoed those sentiments (in general) from critics.
American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002): The Man Comes Around represents Cash’s final album to be released prior to death. The album, which is regarded today as some of Cash’s finest career work, was met with critical acclaim and extremely impressive sales. Peaking at number two on the Billboard charts American IV has surpassed the platinum sales mark in both the US and Canada, making for The Man In Black’s best received collection of tunes in decades.
The title track, which is an original Cash composition, was released as the records first single. And though “The Man Comes Around” didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, it was met with warm reception from fans and ended up finding it’s niche through multiple different television outlets. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, William Friedkin’s The Hunted and Kevin Bray’s Linewatch are all feature length films to showcase the track. A slew of different television series’ have also followed suit, including Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and Criminal Minds.
Perhaps even more relevant is the impact of Cash’s rendition of the fan favorite Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”. The American recording sessions themselves opened a door to a new generation of listeners, but “Hurt” blew that door completely off it’s hinges. Strong airplay and an impacting video helped aide Cash‘s cover of “Hurt” climb to number 56 on the US charts, while hitting number 39 on the U.K.‘s. “Hurt” (which original songwriter Trent Reznor openly praised) is now recognized by many as cash’s epitaph.
Great singles aside, The Man Comes Around features some remarkable covers and superb guest appearances from some of the best musicians in the business, including Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Fiona Apple and a man whose work Cash had covered in the past, Nick Cave. Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, The Beatles’ “In My Life”, and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” all found a home on the album, and all stand as superb tracks that could easily act as single efforts themselves. They are, quite simply put, worth seeking out.
American V: A Hundred Highways (2006): The first of two posthumous albums, A Hundred Highways is a melancholic punch in the soul, enriched by thick, beautiful production. While the majority of the American series features stripped down acoustical works, the fifth volume is anchored by bleak, but well calculated strings, keys, drums and deep sorrowful bass lines. In relation to the prior American installments, the song arrangement itself is even a comfortably gloomy affair.
The albums major single “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” holds little resemblance to Odetta’s 1956 take, but it’s got a power all it’s own, and may well be one of the greatest songs Cash ever recorded. There’s a certain epic feel that dwells within the powerful stomp-claps, and moody strings; Cash’s vocals push the track beyond the boundaries of a quality song, and leave listeners flirting with a true modern day anthem. An amazing video for the single was released and featured tributary appearances from multiple contemporary artists including Kris Kristofferson, Flea, Kid Rock, The Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Iggy Pop and actor Johnny Depp (to name only a few). The single has also garnered unprecedented attention from countless different media outlets.
Covers of the Larry Gatlin penned “Help Me”, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Love’s Been Good To Me” (which won fans over in 1969 when Frank Sinatra initially recorded the single), Don Gibson’s “A Legend In My Time” and Cash’s own original “Like the 309” are stellar recordings that plant the seeds of atmosphere that blossom into a dark but enriching listening experience. In short, A Hundred Highways is a masterful fusion of sadness and elegance. It is the perfect tango in flawless along side the undead.
American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010): Ain’t No Grave feels more an extension of A Hundred Highways rather than a separate album altogether. Once again, simple yet full bodied production decorate this piece of art, and at times, Cash’s crooning delivers an almost ghostly impression. The albums continuity is so imposing it’s almost as if Cash himself had intentionally arranged these specific songs to be delivered to the masses following his death. While harrowing at points, there’s an underlying sense of peace within these recordings that leaves this specific fan content with the legends death. I know where The Man In Black’s soul rests; no God I can conceive of would turn his back on Johnny Cash.
“Ain’t No Grave” and “Redemption Day” both hit the airwaves this year, and while they seem to follow a safe, stylized standard, there’s a certain conviction conveyed that supports the idea that Cash was able to delve far deeper into personal artistic freedom in both specific cases. Critically the album and it’s featured singles were (for the most part) well received. Neither track toppled Billboard charts, but the album itself did debut at number three on the Billboard Top 200 charts, and continues to sell quite well.
Perfection does indeed evade Ain’t No Grave, but for a (third official, including the boxset Unearthed) posthumous release (which tend to contain handfuls of songs originally deemed unfit for powerful marketing expenses and album placement) it’s a smooth ride that I do believe Cash himself would be proud of. Modern reboots of Kris Kristofferson‘s “For The Good Times”, the Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes masterpiece “A Satisfied Mind” and Don Robertson‘s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” provide great structural support and round out the highlights of yet another impressive Johnny Cash collection. One can only hope that the crates contain more buried gems yet to surface.
Revisiting the entire American series has been an emotional journey for me personally. I’ve always found Cash’s naturally (thus quite believable) sympathetic demeanor quite endearing. The empathy he’s shown prisoners (not something I necessarily would agree with in 100% of cases, but hey, unfortunate individuals catch bad breaks in life all the time), and the financially unstable is, in my personal opinion, quite noble. No one forced Johnny Cash to relate with those who’d been forced to face hard times. That was Johnny Cash, the man, not the celebrity, not a gimmick - the man, in black.
With nearly fifty full years and over 140 albums (including soundtracks, live realeases, etc) under his belt, Cash’s musical legacy is, and will remain intact forever. The Man In Black will rightfully remain an iconic musical image, and most importantly - even with today’s technology - he’ll continue to sell units. The end is always bitter, but fans of Johnny Cash can find some level of reprieve in knowing the longevity Johnny Cash achieved and will continue too for years to come. It’s hard to kill The Man In Black, or so I’ve heard.