Johnny Cash

American Records, 1996


REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


After the success of the bare American Recordings in 1994, Cash returned to a harder country sound for his second album for American, Unchained. Taken together, the back to back juxtaposition of the albums is stark; one was recorded in a living room with only Cash and a guitar, while the other was produced with a full band, often made up of guests like Tom Petty, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood. It also pulls material from some seemingly unlikely sources, offering covers of Beck and Soundgarden, while also hewing close to country traditionalists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Snow. The result allowed Cash to beat out Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, George Strait and Dwight Yoakam, for the Grammy for Best Country Album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Unchained holds a couple of distinctions. The first is that it was really the last fully “country” album that Cash made, as he opted to return to a more folk/Americana sound for his remaining albums. In this is also less spiritual in nature than his other recordings on American. The other distinction is that this was the last album that Cash did in relatively good health as respiratory problems and other ailments would begin to catch up to him by American III.

Of the songs that have a harder country edge, Beck’s “Rowboat,” along with “Rusty Cage,” and Cash’s originals “Country Boy,” and “Mean Eyed Cat” are standouts. “Sea Of Heartbreak” is impressively upbeat in a ‘50s rock and roll sort of way, despite its depressing lyrics. “I Never Picked Cotton” is a darkly humorous song about a lazy convict who will die young for his crimes, but at least he could say he never had to work in the cotton fields with his family. The song also presents a dizzying array of key changes to keep the listener on his toes.  The final song, the tongue tying “I've Been Everywhere” is impressive and catchy, yet it is nigh unto impossible to remember all the lyrics.

From here, Cash’s health would deteriorate rapidly until his death, and recording would become more of a chore for him, although he would still record an impressive amount in those final years. Future albums would fall somewhere in between American Recordings and Unchained in their production, but here we see Cash in his final country glory.

Rating: B

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