American Recordings

Johnny Cash

American Records, 1994

http://www.johnnycash.com

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/04/2014

Johnny Cash’s long career was filled with ups and downs.  Starting out in the same studio in Memphis as Elvis Presley, he produced a string of hits before faltering in the 1960s.  He regrouped in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with a successful television variety show and some commercially and critically positive music. But for a long time through the ‘70s and ‘80s, he dealt with a lifelong prescription drug addiction and musical complacency. As a result, Cash had difficulty finding traction, so much so that in the ‘80s he was dropped by Columbia Records and took on a heavy touring schedule to pay the bills.

But in 1993, Rick Rubin of American Recordings, a label more familiar to heavy metal and hip-hop artists, wanted Cash to come on board. The result of his relationship with Rubin was a string of successful recordings that stretched nearly 20 years beyond his life span and provided the career resurgence that Johnny Cash craved – and needed.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first of these recordings with Rubin was the stripped-down, bare bones, American Recordings, which was recorded in Rubin’s living room with Cash singing the lead vocal accompanied only by his own Martin guitar.  The simplicity of the performance and the song selections, along with Cash’s aging yet strong and clear voice, make for an almost surreal listening experience.  Cash’s style, bereft of reverb, mariachi horns or over production, is a solid offering. 

High points for the album are the consummate murder ballad “Delia’s Gone,” the original “Drive On,” “Oh, Bury Me Not (Introduction: A Cowboy's Prayer),” and “Tennessee Stud” are just classic Cash. “Down There by the Train” touches on Cash’s spiritual side along with Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord,” although the latter drags somewhat. Other tunes like “The Beast In Me” and “Bird On A Wire” also drag, which is really a facet of the production decision.  With such songs, often there are musical breaks and changes that can keep a song fresh as it progresses. Stripped bare of those elements, a song performed straight with a guitar can feel unimpressive. “The Man Who Couldn't Cry” is the final tune, performed live, and holds true to Cash’s choice to offer humorous songs from time to time. This one he does well. The two live tracks, “Tennessee Stud” and “The Man Who Couldn't Cry” were recorded at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room in Los Angeles. Rubin had to push Cash to do these since he had grown unaccustomed to performing solely on his own, but as we can hear, he pulled it off with success. 

The best part about American Recordings is that it kicked off an incredibly successful stage in Cash’s career. Rather than going out with a whimper or in stagnation as so many aging entertainers have done, Johnny Cash gave himself a powerful exit and a new generation of fans.

Rating: B+

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