American Recordings (American Records)
Johnny Cash

By Mark Clark

These are sweet days for Johnny Cash.

While the rest of rock 'n' roll's originals are either dead (Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly) or washed up (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard), Cash has suddenly emerged as a new idol for twentysomething alternative bands and their fans.

His invitation-only performance during the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in March had all of Austin, Texas, buzzing. Then it was announced that he will be one of the featured performers on this summer's Lollapalooza tour.

Cash's latest release, American Recordings, offers further proof that the legendary Man in Black retains his timeless vision and power.

American Recordings, the first project in nearly two decades over which Cash has had total creative control, is easily the singer's finest work since his classic prison albums of the early 1970s.

Working with a single acoustic guitar, Cash bangs out thirteen rawboned cuts, recorded mostly at his cabin and at the home of producer Rick Rubin. The result is an unvarnished, rough-hewn sound that perfectly matches Cash's rugged baritone.

The songs are a mishmash of originals and carefully selected covers. Cash performs numbers from sources as divergent as Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig.

The Danzig song, "Thirteen," is the best cover Cash has recorded since his version of Bob Dylan's "Wanted Man" 24 years ago. The song was tailor-made for Cash, and it shows.

Cash also delivers a moving read of Waits' spiritual "Down There By the Train" and a sidesplitting version of Loudon Wainwright III's campy "The Man Who Couldn't Cry."

But the finest moments on American Recordings are Cash's self-penned compositions. Songs like "Delia's Gone" prove that, at age 61, Cash hasn't lost a step.

"Delia's Gone," which opens the disc, is the quintessential Man in Black song, a gritty tune about a man who killed his lover. Cash sings: "The first time I shot her, I shot her in the side/It was hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died." It's powerful stuff — and as good as anything Cash has written since he left the Sun Records stable 30 years ago.

"Drive On," about Vietnam veterans, has the same chatty delivery as his classic "A Boy Named Sue," this time applied to weightier material. "I think my country got a little off track/It took 'em 25 years to welcome me back," he sings.

As always, Cash's songs deal with pain, violence, betrayal and redemption through Christ. Five of the album's 13 tracks are spirituals.

Cash's genius, over the decades, has always been as a storyteller. There's something in that deep, rattly voice that makes almost any story he tells sound true. American Recordings proves the old master still has some engrossing tales left in him.