Johnny Cash has been one of my musical influences since I was a wee lad, basically because my dad was a big fan of Johnny Cash and the first albums I was exposed to were Johnny Cash recordings. My favorite was Live at San Quentin and I would listen to that album over and over. As a smartass teenager, my friends and I would goof on the fact that Johnny played the song San Quentin two times in a row on that album and how much it would suck if a band like Kiss would play a song like Beth two times in a row at a concert. With his TV show and old hits, Johhny Cash was a big star in the 1970s.
However by the time American Recordings came out in 1994, Johnny’s career was pretty much tapped out. Of course he could’ve always just played the casino circuit, singing his hits and Cashing in on the nostalgia but a bearded rap producer named Ric Rubin would have none of that. Rubin convinced Johnny to just play songs in his living room, accompanied by nothing but his own acoustic guitar. The result was not only stunning but resurrected Johnny’s career and brought a whole new legion of fans to his music.
On the surface, American Recordings was surprising more for its sparseness and “folky” tenor than for its subject matter. It was Johnny Cash stripped down to the bare necessities: that clear, deep voice and an acoustic guitar. Peeking underneath that surface, however, brought about another image – that of a man acknowledging his own mortality; worried about sins both past and present with the understanding that those sins have called into question his standing in the afterlife. Songs like Delia’s Gone, The Beast in Me, 13, and Down There by the Train tell the tale of a man who has grievously sinned. Cash is not proud of these sins – he doesn’t boast or shrug them off. Instead there is the sad recognition that sin is the price man pays for its humanity.
American Recordings kicked of a certain format that we would see throughout the American Recordings sessions. A few originals, one or two old standards, and a couple of offbeat covers that Johnny makes his own. The latter in American Recordings is a cover of the Danzig song 13. In the end the album is about sin and redemption. Johnny is telling us that we are all sinners but that there is a way out, we can seek redemption. Cash ends the album with The Man Who Wouldn’t Cry, a song that addresses the need for humility as it describes a hard-scrabbled man who lives a life of unsentimentalized failures and only finally through his tears is able to enter into heaven and gain all he lost on earth. Johnny would mine these fields even deeper in his next American Recordings Albums.
One can listen to American Recordings and dwell on the themes of sin and redemption or one can just listen to Johnny sing a bunch of old timey songs in a way that only Johnny Cash could do. It’s why these albums are so popular and why, when Johnny Cash dies nearly 10 years later, hipsters and old folks alike lament his passing and his preacher-like image graces the cover of Time Magazine.