American Recordings, the first volume of the series, is perhaps the most traditionally Cash of all the albums. He spends a fair amount of the time attacking his own back catalog and the works of his country cohorts, but also looks at the music that has surrounded him at a distance. Leonard Cohen was contemporary to Cash, born only two years later, but the two men are vastly different in their lives and artistry. Cohen refers to his song, “Bird on a Wire,” as country, however it has taken on countless permutations over the course of Cohen’s career as well as in its numerous covers. Cash, though, strips it down to a quiet hymn and a solitary reflection, capturing the yearning for freedom that has been so prevalent in Cash’s music and fitting the song perfectly into the album and into the country pantheon. Cohen may have intended the song to be a country tune and others may have covered it with the sound and trappings of the genre, but Cash elevates it. He makes it not just a country song; he makes it a Johnny Cash song.

Johnny Cash – Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen Cover)

Cash’s approach to Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” on Unchained (American II) is perhaps the first clear indication of the path-less-traveled that he is embarking upon with the series. Cash departs with beautiful style from the original, translating the track into a frontier-esque arrangement with a pace like wild horses and locomotives to match the evoked images of packs of wild dogs and burning dinosaur bones. Better still is the moment when Cash brings in an electric guitar and an entirely switched-up rhythm, delivering a dirty, bluesy sound that feels like the natural and inevitable progression of the song.

Johnny Cash – Rusty Cage (Soundgarden Cover)

Perhaps the most stark and innovative of Cash’s departures is his take on Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” on American III: Solitary Man. The song almost has the feel of the spoken-word poetry of a man scheduled for execution; mumbled, jittery rants directed only at himself and the walls of his cell. Indeed, the titular seat is an electric chair. Where Cave brings the manic feel of that imminent surge, though, Cash brings the somber, yet still on edge, feel of hands clutching the cold bars of a cell and of a life, misspent and wasted, nearing its end. This, after all, is what Cash built his career on from the start with “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cave talked a bit about the cover in an interview with The Guardian:

He just claims that song as he does with so many. There’s no one who can touch him. I wrote and recorded that when I was fairly young, but he has a wealth of experience which he can bring. He can sing a line and give that line both heaven and hell.

With Cave’s song straddling precisely that border, Cash brings a sound that is both angel and demon; both sinner and savior.

Johnny Cash – The Mercy Seat (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Cover)

On American IV: The Man Comes Around, a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” shares the disc with “Hurt,” and captures some themes that “The Mercy Seat” touched on but are pivotal to Cash. There’s a feel of conflicted faith; of cynical belief; of a regard for capital-r Religion and the need to find that kind of salvation elsewhere. Johnny Cash is and has always been a bundle of contradictions, and “Personal Jesus” captures this magnificently. He doesn’t change up the rhythm of the song much, but he doesn’t need to. Just as the original brought its own synthy, New Wave layer of ’80s grime, Cash brings a saloon piano sound that soaks the song in whiskey and smoke and evokes images of the seedy old West. For a song that seems to be directed toward religiousness, Cash reminds us of one of his constant themes: it’s not about salvation – it’s about wanting salvation; it’s about everything that got you to need salvation in the first place. It’s about addiction and sketchy bars and men lying purposelessly dead in Reno.

Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode Cover)

Just as Cash’s persona is reflected and refracted through all of his songs, as if through broken glass, his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road)” on American V: A Hundred Highways engenders yet another side of the man and the series. Like so many tracks in the series, he strips the song of all the trappings of the original – in this case, the electricity and loudness of Springsteen. Granted, the original isn’t all that loud or electrified (especially compared to some of the rock tunes mentioned earlier); Cash’s cover, however, is haunting by comparison. The lyrical “dead man’s suit” and “lucky graveyard boots” seem as though they could have been written for the Man in Black, but it’s the lightness of the song that Cash makes the most of. In a song about darkness and death and traversing deserts and cemeteries, Cash makes the most of the moments of hope and predictions of light without doing any damage to the song’s Gothic (in the traditional sense of the word) bleakness.

Johnny Cash – Further On (Up the Road) (Bruce Springsteen Cover)

Finally and fittingly, from American VI: Ain’t No Grave, we’ve got something of a farewell track, although the two posthumous volumes of the series seem to be full of farewell tracks, in a way. Written and originally recorded by Cash’s peer and friend Kris Kristofferson, “For the Good Times” is a bit of a return to roots. Once again, Cash is singing an indisputable country classic in lieu of his genre-jumping escapades. It’s a love song and a song about love’s end; a song of goodbyes and of appreciating the past as it deteriorates into the present. And yet, there’s none of the regret or desperation of some of the other tracks in the American series and Cash’s repertoire. It’s a wistful look back while bridges burn and the world doesn’t stop. The world didn’t stop when Johnny Cash died; maybe it just skipped a beat, jumped a genre, changed instruments and switched up its rhythm.

Johnny Cash – For the Good Times (Kris Kristofferson Cover)

Check out more of Johnny Cash at his website.

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2 Responses to “The White-Haired Man in Black: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings”

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  1. Sam Foster says:

    Thank you very much for this touching review of some of Cash’s, in my opinion, finest work.

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