Johnny Cash’s American Recordings

By | February 12, 2011

IMAG0010-300x179What does Johnny Cash mean to you? I am sure he elicits some emotion, whether it be his role in country music since the 50s or maybe his life story as told in the film Walk The Line with Joaquim Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Until recently it was very much the latter for me although I was aware of some of his early songs, his live album from San Quinton Prison (considered a classic by many) and also the adoption of the song, Ring of Fire by the English Cricket supporters or ‘Barmy Army’ as they are affectionately known.

I’d heard of his “American Recordings” and maybe heard a couple of the songs from them but they hadn’t really registered on my conscience much. Then about six months or so ago I heard ‘Hurt’ on the radio and it frankly moved me. This was a man singing of his impending death and it was so visceral and so raw that I thought I’d investigate the albums and see if it was all emotion and despair. Finding them in an HMV sale (no surprise there given their precarious position) I bought all six and vowed to listen to them in order and give them time. Then I kept putting off the moment and those six months flew by.

Before a recent road trip I was digging for something to listen to before setting off when I came across the stack of the six “American Recordings” (so called because that’s the record label). I quickly cut them to my iPod and looked forward to a 5 hour journey in the company of a man whom many would feel justifies the epitaph of ‘legend’. Well, let me tell you, it was an exhausting experience.
By the time the final disc had been played and I pulled into my garage, I half-wondered whether I should stay in the car, keep it running and shut the garage doors. It was seriously depressing. But, if this is possible, depressing in a rather good way.

The last to of the six were released posthumously, but all six clearly reflect a man coming to terms with the final stages of old age and death itself. Few artists in the history of popular music have continued to record in their old age (Cash was 71 when he died) and still fewer to have produced some of their best work in their dotage, as Cash appears to have done. One of the other things that attracted me to check them out int he first place is that the quality of collaborators and musicians is exceptional (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Nick Cave, Don Henley, Sheryl Crow and John Frusciante for example) and the covers he undertakes are of some seriously classy songs (‘Desperado’ (Eagles), ‘One’ (U2), ‘The Mercy Seat’ (Nick Cave), Down There by Train (Tom Waits), Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode), Bird on the Wire (Leonard Cohen) and many others. seo data All of the covers – and I estimate 50% of the 6 albums are covers – are generally faithfully reproduced, but of course in Cash’s stripped down style they take on a completely different perspective and some are improvements over the original, but most just add to them rather than replace.

It is probably on Volume III that Cash really hits the heights with some of his most impassioned interpretation of others work and reinterpretation of some of his own songs on any of the six. ‘Won’t back down’, ‘Solitary Man’ and ‘I see a Darkness’ all speak to his raging against illness and curtailing of his touring schedule. list of flash websites By IV some of the most visceral songs ever recorded appear, ‘Hurt’, ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘I hung my head’ are stand-outs but the whole album works as one of angst and impending change. Volumes V and VI were released posthumously and although they were generally well received critics felt that the songs were not the strongest and the stripped-down arrangements had verged on the formulaic.

So if you have never owned a Johnny Cash CD or still know him only from the film, do yourself a favour and check out American Recordings III A Solitary Man. I am sure you will not be disappointed.
For me, Johnny Cash has assumed a prominence in my listening roster which I would not have conceived of a couple of years ago.

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