When Mercury records decided not to renew the contract of country music legend Johnny Cash in 1992, it became the single largest contribution to the music world that that company has ever made. What most people in the industry might have seen as complete foolishness—dropping one of the best-selling musicians of all time—record producer and all-around eccentric Rick Rubin saw as an unbelievable opportunity. Not being one to shy away from such a 14-carat auspice, he signed Cash to his American Recordings label in 1993. Rubin and Cash immediately began cultivating the professional relationship that would result in one of the most highly acclaimed records in recent memory: Johnny Cash, American Recordings. Released in 1994, that record became an instant classic.
Where Mercury Records had seen Cash as a tired commodity, Rubin had recognized the man as an artist. In the course of their early relationship, Rubin was insightful enough to recognize that, with the man in black, less is indeed more. American Recordings was a stripped-down vision of Cash’s earlier work. It relied on nothing more than a few well-placed microphones, a guitar, and the musician himself. It was recorded primarily in Rubin’s living room and Johnny Cash’s cabin. The bare-bone sound of the record gave listeners an intimate view of the legendary musician’s talent without the fetter of overproduction and distraction of backing musicians.
With American Recordings, Johnny Cash was able to transcend the homogeneous stigma that is often attached to most country music. The choice of songs and diverse array of song writing talent presented on American Recordings, when looked at in hindsight, can only be seen as an act of faith by both Rubin and Cash. With the exception of Kris Kristofferson and Cash himself, the names within the liner notes aren’t those typically associated with country music: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, and Glen Danzig. Fortunately it worked and was to become a trend that would appear rigorously on the next two studio albums.
The follow-up to American Recordings was 1996’s Unchained. Where American Recordings had brought Johnny Cash into your kitchen and made you sit quietly in front of him while he played, Unchained was like a cross-country road trip. It was packed full of mishaps, wrong turns, and plenty of adventure. The beauty of American Recordings was in its wind-swept production and raw delivery, Unchained, however, was recorded in Hollywood, California. While that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the record often relied on the very talented array of musicians, including Tom Petty, Marty Stuart, Flea, Howie Epstein, and Lindsay Buckingham. It suffered from trying to do too much with too much.
This brings us to Johnny Cash’s most recent release, American III: Solitary Man. From the very beginning the album is relentless in its beauty, having found that perfect mix of studio and solitude in the recording process. Cash begins the record by singing Tom Petty’s “I Wont Back Down.” It is immediately apparent from the first verse on that Johnny Cash is getting old. The deep vibrating voice that has been an empowering focal point for so many of the poor, the imprisoned, and the lost throughout Cash’s long career, has now evolved into a pair of outstretched arms. His voice still has its trademark vibrato and the abrasive depth of a bare-knuckled boxer. Within that depth, however, there seems to be a kind of hidden wisdom that leaves the Rocky Mountains behind for the rolling hills of Appalachia.
The songs are performed in a sequence that tells the listener a story. Whether the story is autobiographical or not is only for Johnny Cash to know for sure. The themes contained within the story, however, do give the listener an idea of where Cash’s many passions lie: solitude, redemption, betrayal, history, and guts.
The album is full of peaks and valleys. Some of the songs push you, often unwillingly, in front of your emotions and beliefs, and force you to deal with them directly. Once such song is Nick Cave’s incredibly powerful look at the death penalty, “The Mercy Seat.” When sung by Johnny Cash with all of his prison-inspired history, it can be imagined that Cave had him in mind when he wrote it. The album progresses in this way throughout its entirety. However stereotypical it may seem, this record is an emotional rollercoaster.
The songwriting credits, although not as heavily laden with artists that don’t typically sit at the country buffet, still embrace a diverse array of talent—artists like the previously mentioned Nick Cave, as well as Tom Petty, David Allan Coe, Dennis Turner, Will Oldham, and Neil Diamond, who wrote the title track. Cash also has five songs on the record that he either arranged or wrote himself.
From beginning to end, the songs on this record continue to inspire and enhance each other. As a complete work, the album gives faith to both Johnny Cash’s amazing career and his viability as an artist, something Mercury couldn’t do. Cash writes in the liner notes of feeling another record within himself somewhere. We can only hope this to be true; regardless, the catalogue of Johnny Cash’s work as a musician couldn’t have a better bookend than Solitary Man.