It’s deliciously ironic that, in promoting the newly discovered archives of Johnny Cash’s solo acoustic recordings, logged in tape boxes as Personal File, Columbia Records points out the similarity between these performances, dating from 1973-’82, and his critically acclaimed final recordings produced by American Records’ Rick Rubin. Because, in doing so, Columbia has to fess up, and even quote Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, telling Rolling Stone that, while working with Rubin, his dad “talked about how he’d made a record like it in the ’70s, but nobody was interested in putting it out.”
Well, with the resurgence of Cash’s career, even after, but also thankfully before, his death in 2003, Columbia is interested putting it out now. Thank goodness!
The performances may be simple vocal-and-acoustic takes, but Cash approaches with the same mix of ease and conviction he would for any full-blown session. Along with his spoken introductions (and the poem “The Cremation Of Sam McGee”), this is a uniquely intimate experience.
The two discs are divided into secular and inspirational themes. The former includes material from old standards like “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” and “Missouri Waltz” to Doug Kershaw’s “Lousiana Man” and “Girl In Saskatoon,” which Cash co-wrote with Johnny Horton, to more contemporary writers like John Prine (“Paradise”) and Johnny’s step-daughter, Carlene Carter (“It Takes One To Know One”).
The second disc is mainly gospel songs written by Cash, with one each by his then-son-in-law, Rodney Crowell (“Wildwood In The Pines”), and wife June’s uncle, A.P. Carter (“The Way Worn Traveler”).
The two-CD set contains 49 pieces of buried treasure. More evidence (as if we need it at this point) of Cash’s singular stature in American music.
While Personal File has the feel of an audio diary Cash left behind, intended to be listened to after his death, for American V he was literally working against the clock, knowing his health was slipping away. He and producer Rubin began work on the project the day after finishing 2002′s American IV: The Man Comes Around and worked through the most painful event in Cash’s life, the passing of his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, in 2003.
The CD begins with his lone acoustic guitar and his voice, ravaged by time and disease, singing, “Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile/I’m tired of walking all alone.” As if that weren’t moving enough, a cushion of cellos enters when he gets to the second verse of the Larry Gatlin song: “I never thought I needed help before/Thought that I could get by by myself/But now I know I just can’t take it anymore/And with a humble heart on bended knee, I’m begging you please… for help.”
The black gospel song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is next, with a battery of handclaps and foot stomps punctuated by the musicians whose job it was to overdub its parts after Cash’s death, just four months after June’s. Guitaristists Mike Campbell and Smokey Hormel and keyboardist Benmont Tench (all veterans of previous American/Cash collaborations) comprise the nucleus of the backup band.
In addition to originals like the chilling-in-retrospect “Like The 309″ and the prayer-like “I Came To Believe,” Cash pulls covers from the catalogs of Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Springsteen, Don Gibson, and Ian Tyson. The most moving, though, is Hank Williams’ “On The Evening Train,” recounting a husband saying goodbye to his deceased wife: “I pray that God will give me courage/To carry on ’til we meet again.”
Both collections are riveting; they’re so intimate, you sometimes feel like a voyeur. But taken side-by-side, hearing Cash’s voice with the sparest backing in 1973, strong and healthy at age 41, then at death’s door 30 years later, the experience is almost surreal – but one of the most moving musical journeys a listener will ever take.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.