- Artist: Johnny Cash
- Title: American Recordings I-VI
- Released: 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2010
- Format: CD, Digital Download
- Genre: Americana
- Beverage of Choice: Knob Creek Rye and Fresh Apple Cider
Between 1994 and 2003, the year he died, The Man in Black enjoyed a late career surge in popularity and creative output due to producer Rick Rubin’s vision, care, and industry smarts, releasing four albums combining Cash’s unmistakable style with contemporary artist’s songwriting. The positive trend continued posthumously between 2004 and 2010 with the release of two additional albums; American V: A Hundred Highways, becoming Cash’s first number one album in 37 years. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Johnny was all washed up but, by 1994 he had certainly mined out the country/folk/traditional vein he had so long been associated with and these (mostly) covers revitalized his prolific talent for storytelling and musical purity. After all, Mr. Cash was 60 when he recorded the first of this set and died at age 71 shortly after the released of the fourth (and, in my opinion, best) album.
The song selections are eclectic but, true to form, Johnny made them his own. Not all of the covers are a spectacular success (“Danny Boy”) but, in general, the level of engagement and musical interpretation is excellent; some standouts to explore are “Thirteen” (Glenn Danzig), “Rusty Cage” (Chris Cornell), “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty, “One” (U2), “The Mercy Seat” (Nick Cage), “Hurt” (Trent Reznor) and “Personal Jesus” (Martin Gore – Depeche Mode). The original, Cash-created, tunes featured on the albums are some of his finest writing in decades (“Like the 309”, “I’m Leaving Now”) and mostly deal with the fact of his imminent departure from this old globe with candor, humor and grace.
Cash also had some great assistance in creating this body of music from artists like Tom Petty, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard and Nick Cave. It seems that everyone owes some kind of musical debt to the great man and many were honored and overjoyed to get a chance to work with him even as his days ran out (maybe especially so).
We’ve been left a great legacy of honest, uncompromising and soul-satisfying music by a man whose personal demons drove him to the brink of ruin but whose ultimate faith in God and man is a testament to the resilience of the human heart. Explore all of these albums without necessarily taking them in chronological order, each is rewarding and compelling on it’s own merits. Approached as a holistic body of work the American Recordings are a fitting tribute to a true American musical hero.