With three great albums already unveiled, we now reach Number 7 in our countdown of the top 10 americana albums ever. Andrew Frolish gives his assessment of the extraordinary work that reignited Johnny Cash’s career and built on an already enormous legacy.
When we consider American roots music, Johnny Cash’s musical influence and cultural impact are immense. Throughout his long career, Cash produced songs of incredible emotional resonance and humanity, songs that often revealed to us the darker parts of ourselves. There was humour and romance, narrative tales of violence and murder, lives of work and sacrifice, songs of reverence and death: with that deep, distinctive voice, he delivered every aspect of the human condition.
Famously, towards the end of his career, Cash enjoyed a resurgence in popularity through the series of albums produced by Rick Rubin. Any of those albums could have made this list and their consistent quality is such that they eclipse much of his legendary body of work. This was the first. Rubin sought Cash out after seeing him perform live and clearly had a vision of what they could create together.
Mostly recorded in Rubin’s home or Cash’s cabin in Tennessee, the album benefitted from the simplicity of focusing entirely on guitar and his voice, still warm and sonorous in 1994 but full of character and texture. The sparseness of the sound emphasised the intimacy of the vocal and highlighted the lyrical purpose of the songs, the sonic mirror to the tales of loss and love. You can really understand what this album is all about from the opening track, ‘Delia’s Gone’. There was a version of this on 1962 album ‘The Sound of Johnny Cash’, which is perfectly enjoyable. But here, without the choir-like backing vocals and studio flourishes of the 1960s, Johnny Cash sounds more care-worn, more resigned, more human, more real. And, in this context, the darkness of the lyrics is wrenchingly effective: “First time I shot her // I shot her in the side // Hard to watch her suffer // But with the second shot she died.” It truly becomes the confessional it was always meant to be.
Another well-known feature of this series of albums was the perfectly chosen songs. There were Cash originals and re-recordings but also breath-taking cover versions, great songs that Cash just grasped and made his own. On ‘American Recordings’, there are terrific versions of ‘Bird on the Wire’ by Leonard Cohen, ‘Down There by the Train’ by Tom Waits and Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast in Me’, a powerful exploration of the soul.
Through its honesty and minimalist beauty, ‘American Recordings’ is strangely uplifting because it feels fundamental to what we are. This album is what it means to be human.