American Recordings

Johnny Cash

American Records, 1994

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


In an age where country has almost the same flavor as rock and it's not unusual for artists like Garth Brooks to top the Pop charts, leave it to a battle-scarred legend to remind us of the folk roots of country music.

Johnny Cash, long written off as a relic of an era gone by, rumbled forth on American a few years back with American Recordings, and showed the world he ain't dead yet. What he did do was produce probably the best record of 1994.

Armed with just his acoustic guitar, Cash was recorded in extremely intimate surroundings far away from the polish of the recording studio. Producer (and label owner) Rick Rubin used his own living room, Cash's cabin and a live show at The Viper Room to capture the power of the Man in Black. If U2's use of his tremolo vocals on "The Wanderer" didn't bring him into the focus of Generation X, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 American Recordings sure did.

The opening track, "Delia's Gone," is a powerful piece of country-folk rarely heard anymore, backed with the modern technology of a video (one endorsed by Beavis and Butt-Head, no less). Cash's sparse picking style and the thundering of his voice brings the listener almost there as Cash tells the story of the murder of his love.

Cash's use of songwriters is sometimes surprising. Nick Lowe ("The Beast In Me")? Tom Waits ("Down There By The Train")? Glenn Danzig ("Thirteen")? But Cash knows a good song when he's heard it, and all the songs seem perfectly tailored to Cash's style. Even the humor of Loudon Wainwright III's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" (captured in live performance) seems like Cash was born to sing it - even the pseudo-gospel number "Why Me Lord".

In fact, there is not a bad performance or sagging moment on this album. Admittedly the music isn't all smiles and rainbows, but Cash is able to make it pass so quickly, you'll want to listen to the disc again immediately. I wouldn't have minded a bit if this one had been a double-album.

Even the cover art seems perfectly suited for Cash - the wear and tear of his life are seen as Cash waits by the side of the road with two dogs. It's almost as if he begs us to figure out what he is waiting for.

What's that? You don't like country, you say? Put aside your preferences for just 45-odd minutes, and let this one win you over. I'm not the biggest country music fan in the world - only a small portion of the now-legendary Pierce Memorial Archives houses any country music - but I love this album. The copy I have even came with a reproduction of hand-written musings from Cash on the album and his life. If you're lucky enough to stumble on a copy of these, read them and be wowed.

American Recordings is proof that Johnny Cash is probably the best musician in his field - there's a reason he's been around as long as he has. Allow Cash to lift your spirit with his tales of woe and salvation, and experience one of the best albums ever released.

Rating: A

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© 1997 Christopher Thelen 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.