Wanted Man

Johnny Cash may just be a legend, but he's never sounded better

"I was at a session in downtown Nashville one day, and somebody came in from Randy Travis's record company," Cash recalls. "I said, 'What's goin' on over there?' and he said, 'Aw, we're just lookin' for another Randy Travis.' I said, 'What's wrong with the one you got? You got a good one, you oughta keep him and let people know about him.' I heard demographics so much I wanted to vomit."

In retrospect, Cash's signing to American Recordings in 1994 was a stroke not of desperation, but of genius. American's head honcho, Rick Rubin, was Cash's kind of guy -- someone who treated Cash not as a waxwork display, but as a performer whose best years were still in front of him. Rubin was probably smart enough to know he wouldn't make much money with Cash, but he was also sharp enough to know he'd make a great record with the Man in Black.

Their CD, American Recordings, released three years ago, has proven to be perhaps Cash's oddest -- and, in some twisted way, most fulfilling -- work from start to finish. Even its cover seemed to warn of what was contained inside: With a wide-open sky behind him and two hellhounds by his side, Cash stands cloaked in nightmare black. He props his guitar case in front of him and looks straight at -- straight through -- the camera. It's as though he's daring you to listen to what's inside -- an unholy assortment of murder ballads and religious hymns and war stories, music that drips with blood.

Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and he sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others -- not to mention a few of his older, lesser-known songs -- and wrings the life (and death) from them. And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, as Cash sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell, "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

Cash says he recorded 70 songs for American Recordings, only 13 of which ended up on the final product; 14 more, though, have turned up on the highly sought after American Outtakes bootleg. That CD is every bit as good as the official release -- perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's Los Angeles living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease than its "predecessor": Cash's voice is piercing and doom-saying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable is Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime" (one of the only songs from the American Recordings sessions to feature a guest musician, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar) and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash says. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me."

If last year's Unchained -- featuring the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood -- seemed somehow less satisfying, it was because American Recordings was the record Cash had always wanted to make. He had long dreamed of doing a solo acoustic album and had been told by Columbia and Mercury execs he couldn't, and so American Recordings reverberated with the echoes of passion and perfection. Unchained was bound to pale in comparison because it was more like any other record, less like a personal statement.

Cash was even skeptical of the whole affair from the beginning -- worried, for example, that Petty and his band would use their opportunity backing Cash to shine, nervous about whether the Heartbreakers would be able to interpret his vision for Unchained.

"For this record, it was about recording with some musicians I was really comfortable with and to get the whole music flow and the feeling I had as one person," Cash says. "When we were recording 'The One Rose,' everybody had the same goal in mind; everybody was in one accord emotionally, spiritually and every other way. It was like this whole song, from all the instruments, came through me. It's like I took everything they were giving me and put it through my soul and out my mouth. That's the way these songs had to work. They had to feel like they could be a part of me. Like 'Folsom Prison Blues' is a part of me. There's no separating me from that song. Well, I had to feel that these songs on this album were that way -- that they were that good.

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