American Recordings
Rating: 7 (library disc)
   In the early 90's, one of the hot topics in country music circles was the failure of big stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Merle Haggard to garner radio play or record sales. Some attributed it to ageism or the tendency of Nashville toward rock and pop crossover sounds, but I say it was just their audience expressing resentment for all those lousy albums from back in the Golden Age of Country. I had a couple Johnny Cash albums from the height of his popularity in 1968-9, and they're about 23 minutes long and filled with quality material like "When Papa Played the Dobro" (can Johnny Cash play the dobro? Is the Pope a Southern Baptist?). Experiences like that make a customer nervous.
   American Recordings, Cash's 1994 comeback album, is a solid product, however - it's a full-length album, and is devoid of filler. Played solo by Cash, it features his solid but unremarkable guitar playing - although he does make some interesting choices in playing the root-tonic bass lines, going up an octave occasionally - and his wonderful singing. Cash has lost a little bit of the low end of his range, but his impeccable timing and dry delivery remain. It's remarkable especially in the chorus of "Drive On", with a rapid melody in the chorus followed with a syncopated rest then "drive on." Many singers would rush this, but Cash takes his time and allows it to sink in for the listener.
   Most of the titles are Cash originals, and his songwriting is strong. From the acceptance of life's unexplainable miseries in "Drive On" to the dry-eyed murder ballad "Delia's Gone", he works in the classic country style - never emotional, but never covering up the hard facts of life. It's a point of view that has largely disappeared from Nashville these days, and I miss it. Even his Christian songs, "Redemption" and "Like a Soldier" are quality lyrics - instead of nampy-pamby "Jesus is my buddy" verses that characterize most contemporary Christian songwriting, we get vivid Biblical imagery combined with stone-faced Pentecostal theology. You may not agree with him, but you can't deny the conviction with which he writes. Melodically, Johnny Cash has always accepted the limits of his vocal range, and so the tunes don't wander much beyond an octave, but that's fine, because the interest is all in the rhythms, and the variety of patterns he uses keep the listener engaged from song to song.
   The outside material is more iffy. I wrote in my Joe Cocker review that I never want to hear another Leonard Cohen song, and this rendition of "Bird on a Wire" hasn't changed my mind. It's fine to have a one-note melody, if you've got a pumping rhythm - but largo is not the tempo I'd call "pumping." Nick Lowe has written a number of clever, catchy country-flavored songs that would suit Johnny Cash well, but in the 90's he's turned in nothing but dull lounge music; "The Beast in Me" is part of that unfortunate trend. "Tennessee Stud," while not as fine as Doc Watson's version, is a great number for Johnny Cash, and he delivers it with a smile in his voice. Similarly, "Thirteen" (by Glenn Danzig of all people) sounds exactly like a Johnny Cash composition, and the performance may be Cash's finest vocal on the album.
   Johnny Cash, like almost all country artists working in the 60's and 70's, may have perpetrated a number of ripoffs on his loyal fans in the guise of LPs half as long as your average Yes record, but it sounds like he's trying to make up for it now. If you're a fan of his early hit singles, American Recordings will not disappoint.

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