JOHNNY CASH American III: Solitary Man (American)

At the age of 67, and battling Parkinson's disease, Johnny Cash presents his, by my reckoning, 48th studio album, and third for Rick Rubin's American label. "American III: Solitary Man" is a predominately acoustic affair, songs old and new stripped down to their essential core, without even percussion to disturb the ghosts of folk and country music that shadow these tracks. Although a handful of new Cash compositions are featured, including the wry, semi-autobiographical "Country Trash", it’s the cover versions that really make "American III: Solitary Man", possibly because they've been stripped of the accumulated baggage that weighs them down in their more familiar interpretations.

Cash sings "I Won’t Back Down" with a voice as old as time, hewn from solid hillsides, the song's youthful author Tom Petty chiming in on backing vocals. Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" is revelatory, shorn of the Brill Building AM pop arrangement of the original. The U2 song "One" emerges triumphant from underneath whatever you do or don't like about flag-waving, planet-straddling, mass consciousness stadium rock. Then, most remarkably, there's Bonny Prince Billy's bleak tale of drinking and threat, "I See A Darkness", and Nick Cave's electric chair drama "The Mercy Street", in versions that stand proud alongside some formidable antecedents.

"American III: Solitary Man" isn't a country album: it might draw as much from that genre as it does from folk, but it's an album of music, songs stripped of their original context and bombast, recast in the image of a man, a guitar and a handful of his friends. It's almost like an unplugged cousin to the cosmic American music of, among others, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips; unavoidably more monochrome, perhaps, but drawn from the same well. Whatever your preferences and prejudices, it deserves investigation.

JOHNNY CASH Ride This Train (Columbia/Legacy)

"Ride This Train" is a country concept album, originally issued in 1960, over a decade before the Eagles has a not dissimilar idea with "Desperado". Taking as its theme songs about the lost America of the 18th and 19th centuries - some specially written by Merle Travis and Tex Ritter - and binding them together with the sounds of the steam locomotives that were vanishing from the country's landscape at the time and introductory narratives from the man in black (or the man in cowboy outfit, as he is on the cover), "Ride This Train" is a surprisingly cohesive work wrung from a somewhat hokey premise. Nevertheless, the songs contained herein aren't amongst the most memorable Cash has fashioned: these character-driven vignettes are far closer to the kind of rudimentary folk of antecedents such as Woody Guthrie than the mellow, magisterial music he's produced in recent years. And some of the selections don't really bear close analysis today, the benevolent plantation owner portrayed in "Boss Jack" being a hairsbreadth away from the slave trade recruiter in Randy Newman's "Sail Away". Although these productions are far from elaborate, there's some welcome chain gang clanking behind the bad man gone bad lament "Going To Memphis", and the use of hymns as backing music to the recitations "Old Doc Brown" and "The Ballad Of The Harpweaver" serves to delicately underline the parable nature of the texts. More interesting than impressive, at least "Ride This Train" now carries four extra tracks so that, in the artist's own words, "you'll feel better about buying it"!

JOHNNY CASH Songs Of Our Soil (Columbia/Legacy)

"Songs Of Our Soil" is Johnny Cash's third album, one of four he released during 1960, a prodigious work rate underlined by the fact that ten of the album's dozen tracks were taped on the same day. Another of his loose concept works, it brings together traditional and new material to weave a larger tale of the struggle of people against the land, overseen by God and the boss man. These are cheery, sparse country tunes and character studies from the man not yet in black - in fact, one of the booklet photographs shows Cash wearing a shockingly pink jacket and looking alarmingly similar to Mark E Smith!

This collection of short songs - even with the obligatory extra tracks it's some way shy of a half-hour listen - almost has the air of a flickbook rough guide to how the Depression affected rural America. There are many moments that should be familiar: De La Soul sampled "Five Feet High And Rising", The Beach Boys transformed "I Want To Go Home" into "Sloop John B" by dousing it liberally with baroque psychedelia, but the words and music remained the same as displayed here, and which one of us doesn't remember "My Grandfather's Clock" from their schooldays? But the album's greater pleasures are drawn from Cash's gift for a finely turned lyric, an unexpected talent for cramming paragraphs of experience into a handful of words. During "Drink To Me" he makes the suggestion "Leave a kiss in an empty coffee cup/Then pass it from your lips to mine" sound like the most sensual experience imaginable. "The Caretaker"'s examination of an elderly, reclusive cemetery worker observes of the troubled mourners "Through their grief I still see/Their hate and greed and jealousy", while "Old Apache Squaw" asks "You've had misty eyes for years/Could that mist be tears?". "Songs Of Our Soil" is another fine excavation from the man's overwhelming back catalogue, although even at mid-price would it be asking too much for it to be joined by another album or two to fill up the fifty minutes of empty space that comes free with every copy?

JOHNNY CASH American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)

americanivthemancomesaround.jpg (9248 bytes)In the sleeve notes to "American III: Solitary Man", Johnny Cash wrote, "This album has been a long time coming, and I feel another in there somewhere". And here it is. This time around, among other things, he will make you hurt, like a bridge over troubled water he will lay him down, he'll be your personal Jesus, in his life he'll love you more, he's been out riding fences, he's so lonesome he could cry, he walked out in the streets of Laredo and he is a lineman for the county; a pretty impressive set of achievements.

Rick Rubin's sparse, modish production tricks on "The Man Comes Around" only enhance this great song's subtle message of religious conviction and wrathful foreboding, based loosely on the book of Revelations - lyrically it might not be everyone's bag but it's undeniably well served here. I found myself singing along to Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" on first hearing, which might say as much about the predictable path trodden by Trent Reznor's rhyme schemes as it does about the frazzled magnificence of the man in black's performance.

Some of the more traditionally country-oriented material - "Give My Love To Rose", "Sam Hall", "Streets Of Laredo", "Big Iron" - might wear thinner faster for the younger listener, but nothing on "American IV: The Man Comes Around" is a more spectacular musical miscalculation than the duet with Fiona Apple on "Bridge Over Troubled Water", a painful listening experience that does not show the weathered Cash baritone in a flattering light. Nevertheless, its lingering memory is soon dispelled by that rarest of all things, a decent recent Sting song ("I Hung My Head") and the naked honesty of "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face": he sounds helpless, humbled by love, and that might just be the point. Unfortunately a honky tonk "Personal Jesus" only highlights the ridiculousness of Depeche Mode's collective messiah complex, Cash's craggy voice making mincemeat of silliness such as "Lift up the receiver/I'll make you a believer". The clouds are soon dispelled by a lovely, sparse version of The Beatles' "In My Life", bereft of the sped-up piano break of the original, but with a few spare bars where you can hum or whistle your own karaoke equivalent.

A voice and pipe organ "Danny Boy" works rather better than you might imagine it would, but a couple of celebrity duets perhaps intended as tributes to some of the many diverse strands of country music, with Don Henley and Nick Cave respectively on "Desperado" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", seem rather contrived, although there's no doubting the efficiency of these performances. The album's highlight, for me, is "Wichita Lineman": it doesn't shimmer quite so sensuously as R.E.M.'s version, but even so this is about as subtly emotive as music gets. And closing the record with "We'll Meet Again" is a brave but perhaps necessary gesture from a man of Cash's age and health.

Throughout Cash receives unobtrusive backup from, in addition to those mentioned above, some of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, one-time sixth Beatle Billy Preston, Glen Campbell and Beck/Badly Drawn Boy drummer Joey Waronker. But really, this is a one man show, an album helmed and honed by a single towering vision. I can't decide whether it shades its illustrious, and arguably more adventurous predecessor, but there's sufficient material presented here to allow you to ditch the half you like least and still shuffle up a more consistent (and longer!) kind of album than the man in black regularly offered 40 years ago. There's so much great music making contained here that you'd have to be a heartless puritan to allow your thoughts to be clouded by the iffier moments: enjoy it, before the man comes around for real.

JOHNNY CASH Life (Columbia/Legacy)

A parting glass, Johnny Cash finalised the track listing for this sequel to his 2000 trilogy of compilations “Love”, “God” and “Murder” just four days before his death. It cuts a diverse swathe through the less celebrated corners of his catalogue, spanning 30 years from his Sun to Mercury recordings, although nothing is delivered from his Rick Rubin-assisted final decade renaissance. There’s a token unreleased track, though – “I Can’t Go On That Way”, taped in 1977 – to lure the collector.

If “Life” is low on fireworks and the familiar, as the packaging explains, “Facing the end, Cash looked back not on all the extraordinary days he had lived, but on the ordinary ones”. So, “Life” is filled with songs of addiction, justice, work, family and conflict, all subjects that could title a convincing volume of their own. A 1972 take of the gently amusing “Country Trash” has organic warmth that maybe the starker “American” recording misses out on. The likes of “I Talk To Jesus Every Day”, “These Are My People” and “Ragged Old Flag” might not be to every listener’s taste, but few would argue the sincerity with which Cash makes his points. On the other hand, “The Night Hank Williams Came To Town” has a sickly sweetness that, no matter how well intentioned, distances it from his best work – I think we can all be reasonably sure that Hank didn’t do it this way. Nevertheless, the production slickness is just about the only variable here: throughout the years, Cash’s music stands immobile, unbending and resolute. He never went disco, he barely went rock ‘n’ roll. Yet listen to “Wanted Man”, a Dylan tune recorded in a prison with a stinging electric geetar accompaniment, and it’s as punk as anything the MC5 or The Stooges were offering at the time. And the album’s most immediately familiar moment, “Man In Black”, will surely stand as his epitaph.

If the album’s songs are as sepia-toned as its cover, the packaging concurs and explains. “When he put together this book of images from seventy years of living, what he focused on were the universal moments. The moments we all experience.” Because that’s what life’s made up of.

JOHNNY CASH The Legend (Columbia/Legacy)

Claiming to be “the definitive box set from the man in black”, “The Legend” “celebrates the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash recordings (1955-2005)”. Handsomely presented as a hardback book-shaped totem (or tombstone), the packaging is monochrome right down to the black playing side of the four CDs, something I’ve seen on CDRs and Playstation games before now but never on a music CD. Even the cut-down, economy version I bought (cash-happy Cash-heads can indulge in a ton-topping limited edition that adds an extra CD and a DVD) boasts 104 tracks and a 72-page booklet. Of course, it can’t possibly be as definitive as it would like to claim to be, because it doesn’t feature a single scrap of the music Cash recorded with Rick Rubin during his absurdly productive, reputation-sealing final decade (itself lovingly anthologised on the five-disc “Unearthed” set), which, ironically, given that it resulted in Cash’s commercial and critical rehabilitation, created a deal of what market exists for “The Legend”.

Is it possible to actually discuss this music at such a late stage? It’s the lodestone of Americana; it runs through the country (and it runs through country) like a seam. Disc one, “Win, Place And Show – The Hits”, is a pretty good chronological primer of the commercial Cash, the unswaying, unswerving chick-a-boom from “I Walk The Line” to “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky”, utterly impervious to passing fads and trends. Though only a month separates the last of his Sun recordings included here (“The Ways Of A Woman In Love”) and his first for Columbia (“Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”) there’s a drama and confidence in the storytelling on the latter that suggests a change of some magnitude. Five years later elaborate productions like “Ring Of Fire” were the order of the day, but still underpinned by the economical rhythmic scratch of Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. “Understand Your Man” plays like a low-down country cousin of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, and “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” packs traditional folk ballad storytelling onto a side of a single when The Beatles were still tripping over their “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s. (And listen to him contemptuously spit out the line “Like you’d throw a dog a bone”; when some radio stations refused to play the song because of its lyrical content, Cash harangued them in a full-page Billboard ad.) “The One On The Right Is The One On The Left” is a lightweight but amusing commentary on political infighting in the folk scene, even if it’s hardly “Like A Rolling Stone”.

If there’s a sense that Cash’s authority was beginning to slip around this time, he courageously reasserted himself with a series of astonishing prison concert recordings. Opening with his standard greeting “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” (kind of the “Good evening, we are The Fall” of country music – in fact, in some of the early booklet pictures the similarity between the young John R and the young Mark E is uncanny; but then again, what’s the difference between Country and Western and Country and Northern apart from the geography?), he plays “Folsom Prison Blues” to a Folsom Prison crowd, and yes, it’s country, but in what way isn’t it also punk? “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”; the cons cheer over the guitar solo…where’s the indulgence? Where’s the flab? Where’s the compromise? And a year later at San Quentin, he reads the lyrics to the newly-learned “A Boy Named Sue” off a sheet of paper - and you can hear both Cash and the band get tangled up on occasion - and it happens again.

New country meets old on Kris Kristofferson’s astonishing “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, and both are, shall we say, aware of each other’s work. “Man In Black” is a mission statement from before the term even existed; “A Thing Called Love” eclipses its Hallmark sentiment and “Sesame Street” backing vocals with an admission of vulnerability that wouldn’t automatically suggest itself as chart material. With “One Piece At A Time” he reaches back into his Detroit assembly line past: few have married music and comedy so seamlessly.

The second disc subtitles itself “Old Favorites And New”; it deepens the experience and fills in the gaps around the big singles with songs both familiar and not so, covering love, God, murder and life, the four points of Cash’s compass (and at times, such as “The Long Black Veil”, visiting all of them simultaneously). It also demonstrates how that rumbling, majestic baritone can bring gravitas to even the flimsier material such as “Troublesome Waters”. It begins with “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry”, both sides of his debut single: they might have been recorded over fifty years ago, but the sound and songwriting are already firmly in place. Although his more overtly religious tendencies were often frowned upon at Sun, he snuck the joyous country gospel of “I Was There When It Happened” onto his first album. “Five Feet High And Rising” demonstrates how prevalent his influence has become, being sampled on De La Soul’s daisy age classic “The Magic Number”. Tremulous and quavering on “25 Minutes To Go”, the vulnerability only seems obvious because it sounds like he’s acting, whereas normally it’s implicit in his work. Then again, it’s a Shel Silverstein song: compare and contrast with an utterly convincing “Cocaine Blues”, that captive Folsom audience whooping each machine-gunned verse.

A few tracks here even go a way towards rehabilitating his 1980s work, which the traditional view has down as lost to a decade of relapse. “Without Love”, recorded with and written by his then son-in-law Nick Lowe, with a band that included Dave Edmunds and Attraction Pete Thomas, is pleasantly twangly and gently invigorating. A cover of The Costello Show’s “The Big Light” cuts through its slick production, although it’s tantalising to speculate what Rubin could have made from that combination of singer and song. Springsteen’s skeletal “Highway Patrolman” is subtly orchestrated by a barely believable band that includes James Burton, Brian Ahern, Glen D Hardin, Hal Blaine and Hoyt Axton. “When I’m Gray” plays like a charming, countrified “When I’m Sixty-Four” that, puzzlingly, sat around gathering dust for a quarter of a century. Perhaps the revelation of this set, a cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” was recorded for the 1994 charidee album “Red Hot + Country”. It’s six gently lapping minutes of music set against that commanding baritone, the irony being that young is one thing the singer maybe never was.

Disc three, “The Great American Songbook”, demonstrates no conspicuous overlap with Rod Stewart’s similarly titled series. Perhaps singing from an altogether different publication, it’s surprising to note how many of these songs were cornerstones of the British skiffle boom (Lonnie Donegan’s recordings of “The Wreck Of The Old 97”, “Rock Island Line” and “Wabash Cannonball” predate Cash’s) and also how many are Leadbelly compositions (“Rock Island Line”, “Goodnight Irene”, “Cotton Fields”, “Pick A Bale O’ Cotton”), another example of white musicians appropriating black culture, something that extends from Elvis to Eminem and beyond. (But what’s country music if not the white man’s blues, after all?)

“Frankie’s Man, Johnny” makes reference to “a long-legged guitar picker with a wicked wandering eye”, a phrase familiar to Tim Buckley fans (and of course John Cale made off with “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine” from his near-namesake’s cache). The spirit of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” resonates through “In The Jailhouse Now”, and the disc reaches its conceptual peak with a slew of tracks from the “Blood, Sweat And Tears” album, especially the eight minutes of “The Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer”. The previously unreleased “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and “Down In The Valley” are stark acoustic demos, unintentional precursors to the “American” series. Perhaps they prove that that remarkable sequence of albums were in him all the time, and Rubin’s masterstroke – apart from introducing Cash to the work of younger composers – was to convince him that people would want to hear them.

The final disc, “Family And Friends”, arguably makes the least effective use of its 80 minutes: the concept wears perilously thin when it leads to the inclusion of, for example, “Who’s Gene Autry?” because it incorporates a leading question from Cash’s young son. It’s rather more valuable when rounding up some important extracurricular activity, such as the duet with Bob Dylan on “Girl From The North Country” that opens “Nashville Skyline”. If not the birth of country rock then it at least joins the hybrid at its infancy, Dylan’s uncharacteristically smooth singing being a product of his temporary renunciation of cigarettes. “Highwayman”, from the debut Highwaymen album (a country supergroup whose ranks also included Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings) might not be a patch on Jimmy Webb’s symphonic, cyclical original, but really, how could they not? Those grizzled voices certainly lend it an air of gravitas. His country-Krautrock collaboration with U2, “The Wanderer”, can in retrospect be seen as the tipping point of his late-career rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, spines still tingle during his duets with Carter kin on “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and “Another Man Done Gone”, a chilly, unadorned reading, acapella save for a closing scrape of guitar. Elvis Costello, of all people, is rather lost in the chorus of George Jones’ “We Ought To Be Ashamed”, sounding plain overawed on his solo line (“Pencils for a nickel”!). Ray Charles seems another unlikely partner, even given his pioneering work in the country genre, but their shared demons spike the potentially sentimental tosh of “Crazy Old Soldier” with deeper meaning and relevance. The newest recording here, from daughter Rosanne’s 2003 album “Rules Of Travel”, “September When It Comes” opens disarmingly and delightfully like an American Music Club song. Luminous, autumnal and ominously prescient – Cash died the September after its release – he didn’t write these words but they seem chillingly fitting: “I plan to crawl outside these walls/Close my eyes and see/And fall into the heart and arms/Of those who wait for me/I cannot move a mountain now/I can no longer run/I cannot be who I was then/In a way, I never was”. Wow. And then, on the duet “Far Side Banks Of Jordan”, his wife June sings “If it proves to be His will that I am first to go/And somehow I’ve a feeling it will be/When it comes your times to travel likewise don’t feel lost/For I will be the first one that you see”. June Carter Cash died four months before her husband.

Perhaps this set suffers from being frontloaded with the familiar, but its roots-to-branches sequencing helps the listener understand the man, and after four discs you should have at least established how you feel about his music. Apart from the glaring omission of any Rubin material, “The Legend” is as fitting as it could possibly be.

JOHNNY CASH Personal File (Columbia/Legacy)

So it seems that Rick Rubin wasn’t doing something wholly original when he stripped the Man In Black back to his empirical essence and encouraged him to play the songs he loved that way. Cash had done exactly the same thing two, even three, decades beforehand, collating the results in what was known as his personal file. And this double disc is that: as the cover sticker rather presumptuously, but entirely correctly, states, “One Legend. One Guitar. One Powerful Statement.”

What must be remembered about these 49 songs is that they were recorded for Cash’s own pleasure and amusements. They were songs he learned as a child, songs that he or Columbia didn’t feel good about when he tried to record them for albums, songs that he never recorded or even performed in public; the orphaned off-cuts of a career, then, the things that to him were worth saving. The first disc consists of folk songs in the most literal interpretation of the phrase, songs about folk: the cowboys, railroad men, soldiers, prospectors, daughters and mothers that built America. “Louisiana Man” might be familiar to you (well, to me, at least) from The Seekers’ “Come The Day” album, and, as Greil Marcus’ learned booklet essay points out, the cowboy funeral “Jim, I Wore A Tie Today”, with its astonishingly ambiguous lyric (now, if not then) “We did everything in the books, I guess/And a lot that they never made up”, should’ve shoehorned its way onto the “Brokeback Mountain” soundtrack. I feel duty bound to mention “The Cremation Of Sam McGee”, since it’s a poem by Preston-born poet of the Yukon Robert Service (who has a blue plaque in my adopted hometown). The second disc consists predominately, maybe even entirely, of religious material. Even so, there’s a hint of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” about the Cash-penned “No Earthly Good”, and the Carter Family’s “The Way Worn Traveler” is a doppelganger for Dylan’s “Paths Of Victory”. Perhaps the best of this bunch is “Sanctified”, a joyous, knowing celebration of his salvation.

So, there’s nothing flash or dazzling about this album, no grandstanding or rebel rousing. Only one of these songs, “It Takes One To Know Me”, featured on the four disc career retrospective “The Legend” (which, presumably for contractual reasons, ignored Cash’s Rubinesque renaissance entirely), and even then in sweetened, augmented form. What “Personal File” does have, though, is an informal intimacy that even the “American” series doesn’t get close to. As the Rolling Stone sticker quote marvels, it’s “as if he were sitting across from you”, and under those circumstances what are you going to do, yell out for “Ring Of Fire”?

JOHNNY CASH Original Sun Singles ’55-’58 (Sundazed)

A sound, commonsense concept, this: take all of Johnny Cash’s Sun A- and B-sides, then present them chronologically in order of issue over four sides of vinyl. What could possibly go wrong? Well…although the titular dates bookend the period of Cash’s recording activity for Sun, the company continued releasing his material in 7” form long after his defection to Columbia. So, if this collection concerned itself with singles both recorded and released during Cash’s Sun tenure, it would stop somewhere around the end of side three, with Sun 309 (“I Just Thought You’d Like To Know” / “It’s Just About Time”), recorded in July and released (so says Wikipedia) in November 1958. Yet it then continues with a further four singles plundered from the archives, demonstrating, it has to be said, diminishing artistic returns, originally released during 1959. Sun released half a dozen further Cash singles over the next five years, none of which can be found here. So, in terms of adherence to its own remit, this compilation falls between two possible stools.

Secondly, there’s almost certainly a supposition that everything Cash recorded for Sun was a work of gold-plated country and western genius, quite understandably considering that his first three singles alone gave the world “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, “Hey, Porter!”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk The Line” and “Get Rhythm”. However, commercial pressures and the guidance of Sam Phillips’ second-in-command Jack Clement found Cash recording teen soap opera dreck such as “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” and “Straight A’s In Love”, some distance from shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, the saccharine arrangements and massed backing vocalists a long way from the crude authenticity of the Tennessee Two.

So, an interesting concept for a compilation, but one that suffers from a lack of conviction in its execution. As a 20-track single album it might have had more to recommend it. Sundazed’s vinyl pressing was plagued with harsh, serrated vocal distortion the first time I played it on a cold February night, but heard again on a baking July afternoon the problem seems to have diminished considerably, if not to nothingness.