Unearthed

Johnny Cash

American Records, 2003

http://www.johnnycash.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/09/2006

Allow me to put this as delicately as possible; Unearthed is hands down one of the best musical experiences I have ever had. Despite the fact that this a collection of songs by a country artists, despite the fact that all but 15 tracks are outtakes/demos, despite the fact that this is a massive five-disc box set, Unearthed blew my mind in every which way possible.

Unearthed essentially is a collection of songs that did not make the final cut for Johnny Cash's American Recordings series of albums. With the exception of the fifth disc, none of these songs had seen the light of day until now. If there is one facet of this disc I cannot speak enough of, it is of the superb quality of these tracks. Each one of the discs holds up as well as any album I have heard, going above and beyond what one would expect from songs that did not make their respective albums.

The first three CD's of the collection are the meat of the collection. The first disc contains outtakes from the first American Recordings sessions, so it's just Cash and his guitar. The next two feature Cash backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, adding some oomph to the bare bones sound that marks a good deal of Unearthed. For the most part, what little Cash I have been listening to has been that stripped, acoustic sound, so hearing the Man in Black rocking along with the Heartbreakers was a shock. Luckily, the quality of the music doesn't drop off. The Heartbreakers complement Cash quite well. Of particular note:"Heart Of Gold," "Down The Line," and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" featuring Carl Perkins. Now, these songs are all well and good, but the standout track of the first three discs to me is a performance of "Bird On A Wire," with Johnny backed up by an orchestra. As that orchestra swells up behind those steady, ragged Cash vocals, boy is it something.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Perhaps the most touching music on the entire box set comes from the fourth disc: "Songs From My Mother's Hymnbook." Cash himself proclaimed this album to be the one he most desperately wanted to record, and that love and dedication shows. Knowing what Cash went through personally, and then hearing him revel in his strong faith, brought a perpetual smile to my face as I listened. Few artists could have encapsulated what these songs talk about, and Cash is definitely one.

The aforementioned fifth disc is a collection of the best songs from the American Recordings series, and for someone who doesn't own the majority of those albums, it is a welcome addition. Here is where you will find the big players, like "Delia's Gone," "Solitary Man," or the brilliant, sorrowful remake of "Hurt." Beyond the better-known tracks you'll find ones of equal worth. "Rusty Cage" features a driving vocal performance from The Man In Black, as he belts out each line with such feeling you can't help but be riveted. Cash and Rubin also take U2's "One" and make it their own. Sorry Bono, but Johnny did you one better.

As one plows through Unearthed, one can begin to comprehend how well Cash and Rubin cover other artists' material. I knew most of these songs in their original incarnations, but after listening to Cash delivering them, it is like they have been his own for decades. "Redemption Song," is one shining example, featuring Joe Strummer in one of the best duets on Unearthed. Neil Young's "Pocahontas," coming from a frontier man like Cash, is much more potent. June Carter Cash even makes an appearance, backing up her husband on "As Long As The Grass Shall Grow."

At times it becomes hard to keep listening to Unearthed, as you can hear Cash's voice slowly deteriorating. Never is it unbearable, in fact sometimes it makes the songs more emotional (the best example of this probably being "Hurt"). The reality is Cash has been singing about life and death in various ways his entire career, but when facing his own morality, it adds an authenticity. This is not to trivialize Cash's previous work, but I think it makes the material on Unearthed that more powerful.

There is really not much more I can say about Unearthed. It takes its place as the best box set I have had the privilege of listening to. As a final statement from Johnny Cash, it could not be more fitting. It encapsulates what he all about. Maybe the hits like "Ring Of Fire" aren't here, but what you have instead is the brilliant last decade of music from The Man in Black.

Rating: A

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© 2006 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of American Records, and is used for informational purposes only.