Johnny Cash, American Recordings (American Recordings, 1994)

In 1994, Johnny Cash's career was at a crossroads. In spite of his reputation, he found himself struggling to find a record label. Evidently, a few poor sellers can sour a major label on anybody. Producer Rick Rubin, best known at the time for his work on rap recordings, took an interest in Cash and signed him to his American label. This began a remarkable series of albums that continued until Cash's death in 2003. The first of these was simply titled American Recordings.

The combination of originals and covers Cash sings on American Recordings reflects many of the themes Cash sang about throughout his career. There are songs about the dark side of human nature ("Delia's Gone," Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me"), the struggles of soldiers who've returned home ("Drive On"), and the quest for redemption and God's grace (Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord," Cash's adaptation of "Oh Bury Me Not," and Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train"). The subject matter will be familiar to anyone who knows Cash's body of work, but I think that's a big part of why American Recordings succeeded in reviving Cash's career. Rubin simply let Johnny Cash be Johnny Cash, and it works beautifully. Accompanied only by his guitar, Cash exudes the same mixture of warmth and earnestness that defined all his best work. His trademark bass voice was still in fine form as well. He also had a rare talent for making other people's songs sound like they were meant for him to sing all along. I've always liked Nick Lowe's version of "The Beast in Me," but it really just sounds like a demo in comparison.

American Recordings was a simple, honest, down-to-earth work of a legendary artist left to just do his thing. Cash kept his failing health at bay long enough to record three more albums in a similar vein with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some more recordings were eventually released posthumously. Cash sang early and often in his life about spiritual redemption, but few veteran artists in the twilight of their careers have experienced the artistic redemption that Cash received with American Recordings.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Delia's Gone"

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