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 411mania » Music » Columns

Give Life Back To Music 11.04.13: Johnny Cash - The Rubin Years: American III: Solitary Man
Posted by Sean Comer on 11.04.2013

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Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

Celebrating the passing of an incredible 45 years in 2000 since he recorded "Hey Porter" and "Cry! Cry! Cry!" and Sam Phillips' watchful eye in the legendary Sun Records studio of Memphis, TN, Johnny Cash's recordings alongside master producer Rick Rubin cast new light upon the soul and mind behind his music at a career point when many artists would long since settle into coasting.

I'm going to be superbly bold and claim that Cash's finest hours as a songwriter, with the exception of a few new-at-the-time originals penned for these sessions, had come and gone as he and Rubin created these six compelling albums right up to Cash's death on Sept. 12, 2003. It wasn't that he wanted for passion or inspiration. Far from it. It's just that few songs that Cash freshly wrote for these albums receive quite the adoration laid appropriately at the feet of "Ring of Fire" or "Walk the Line" or "Folsom Prison Blues".

Together, though, Cash and Rubin practiced a unique alchemy that simply couldn't have come into being without them both.

Cash poured himself completely into putting spade to earth and communing with the most crucial spirits of others' songs. In others' lingering ghosts, he connected with a performer's vibrancy with energetic, urgent guitar-strumming younger than his years and an intangible richness of wisdom in his sometimes-quavering voice that transcended even the granite solid baritone's fresh polish of his youth. For his part, Rubin forsook the dressy arrangements of overbearing instrumentation and gaudy barbershop-quartet backing harmonies to let Cash's feeling for the songs carry them to new places, often stripping them down to the Man in Black and his guitar.

The same way that Frank Miller could make simple blacks and whites hum with Sin City's blood, cigarette smoke, whiskey, filth and gunpowder…the way Alfred Hitchcock's Rope could hold an audience more raptly in the palm of his hand with minutes-long takes than Michael Bay with relentless seconds-long cuts of sunsets, desert, fire in the background and babes in the fore…Cash just might've been more gripping in these six albums than he'd been in years spent prior with Columbia and Capital Records producers who couldn't bring Cash's greatest richness to the surface as Rubin could.

And just think: after American III: Solitary Man – the first in anthology to really acknowledge a connective legacy carved by the two men – came my personal favorite Cash album, and perhaps the single most poignant of the man's career.

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  • Johnny Cash

  • American III: Solitary Man

  • RELEASED: October 17, 2000

  • American Recordings

  • Not that these recaps aren't usually scattershot enough, but I'm reserving the album's leadoff track for last, and with soon-apparent reasons.

    This could be considered the least "country" of Cash's Rubin-collaborations. Not that it wants for rootsy bareness. Oh, far from it.

    It's just that this is the one with the very least "tear-in-my-beer" twang.

    There's just no diminishing the impact of Cash's original Tennessee Three cohorts Luther Perkins, A.W. "Red" Kernodle and W.S. Holland upon Cash's most iconic recordings' "boom-chicka-boom" freight-train pace. Those were simpler times before producers started overdressing his recordings. As singular as their sound was then and still is today, Cash unfiltered and (musically speaking) more plainly spoken has a whole new emotional weight.

    The album takes its name from not only from Cash and Rubin's embraced approach of roots-country minimalism letting his rendering of each song in his voice stand on its own feet, but his duet with fellow treasured American songwriter Neil Diamond on a revisiting of Diamond's single of the same name. Cash's strumming reflects a passion that held the line right to the man's dying days. He simply never lets up, never lays out and lends an urgency to Diamond's lyrics that even Neil might've never imagined.

    On the other hand, "That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)" is vintage front-porch-with-a-rocker-and-dusty-guitar Cash. It's a lovely hymn of a working-man's lament, one in which Cash just feels every single note sung. It's also an example of Rubin recognizing that line of just enough backing with a tasteful, spiritual organ to give the song just a little more richness.

    Likewise, "Mary of the Wild Moor" takes a tragic tale of a woman lost to the chill of a storm outside a rural priest's cottage, her baby to be found the next morning clinging to its mother but alive nonetheless. It's the kind of ditty whose words taste of a neat Jameson poured by the fireside. In short, it's tragic in the most wistful, beautiful of ways. Just the same, "Wayfaring Stranger" always reminds me of playing Red Dead Redemption and riding aimlessly through the night to the lullaby of the coyote and measured hoof-beats.

    Incredibly, of course, these songs really aren't the most striking, enduring legacies of these albums. No, those are the moments of Cash's most apparent genius when he practically rewrites a song's DNA.

    His cover of "The Mercy Seat" is a grim ending to a wrongly-accused prisoner's final remembrances of a prison life that's become all that he knows. Cash's timbre and delivery never change, and they uncannily don't need to in order to convey Cave's condemned inmate's evolving emotions as he enters his final moments of life with a sense of resigned relief.

    Just the same, Cash delivers an impossibly moving rendition of U2's "One". Bono's delivery has this perpetual over-wrought wail that's very much a love-it-or-leave-it signature of the band's catalogue. Sure, it can be a bit "much" to some. However, it feels hollow even imagining the band's most rightfully loved songs without that wrenched anguish.

    That being said, Cash makes it something moving in a way that's entirely his own. The contemplation takes on a sincere character that gets lost easily in Bono's natural delivery. He just has this way of rendering lyrics and music so that it's easy to forget that any song among these six albums is a cover, especially (remarkably) when he molds a genre-bent arrangement; he just always sounds that comfortable, that immersed in what he finds within the song.

    And that's one of the most beautiful things about music. Any artist can deliver a song with their own indelible, irreplaceable and impossible-to-duplicate experiences imbuing every note, beat and chord. Even then, the listener's framing takes such possession of it that what the words and music pluck from within the soul becomes as much a part of the song as what initially built it.

    That brings me to "I Won't Back Down".

    It is easily the most sterling moment of the album. It may very well be one of my favorites of all six albums, actually. I absolutely love Tom Petty's original. I'd probably tie it with "American Girl" as my all-time favorite of the decades of music the man has written and performed. Even knowing that, I can't deny reducing the song to Cash, Petty and an acoustic six-string emboldens Petty and Jeff Lynne's unyielding, standing-tall defiance in a way that makes the same feeling seem drowned out in comparison by the Heartbreakers' original take.

    And in that one Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover, Cash captured something idyllic about country music, crucial to its very identity but long since lost: at its best, it is the language of an earnest, straightforward life. It's the tongue of a way of life whose families often feel encroached upon and endangered by an ever-complicating world to whose outskirts they'd rather keep with their simpler ways.

    It's an understatement to claim that tradition meant "something" at this point to country music. To some, it still meant everything. To Cash, it wasn't just music. It was his life. It was his Arkansas upbringing and every experience, every face and every story that ever sketched the lines that his songs painted in and shaded. It's a life, culture and experience that those who weren't raised among it could never completely understand. It's a way of life that those of us whose blood runs with its values – yep, even those of us who grow up and hightail it to a desert metropolis – never completely shake.

    We're halfway home, kids. Next week, it's the album I've excitedly waited a full month to review.

    Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.


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