Guide: Johnny Cash’s American Series

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 02.23.12 in User's Guide Hubs

While Johnny Cash wasn’t exactly forgotten when he and Rick Rubin teamed up for the first time in 1994, he was in danger of being viewed as a relic – a living legend, to be sure, but only when you consider his back catalog. The American series became his reinvention, the great final act of his life. It was just as crucial for Rubin, who significantly broadened his horizons behind the boards. Few partnerships in popular music have produced recordings as creatively and commercially fruitful as the pair achieved with the following records…


Johnny Cash

The Story: Released just a couple months after Cash's death in late 2003, Unearthed gathered high points of the first four American albums, but greatly expanded upon them with three discs of fascinating outtakes and a set of gospel songs. It may feel like an emptying of the American series cabinets, but it's a fascinating collection that reveals considerable breadth and depth in Cash's artistic vision.
The Oddball Cover: "Father and Son" was one of Cat Stevens' most dramatic songs and was in some ways a good fit for Cash, but as a duet with Fiona Apple, it becomes a bit surreal.
The Essential Track: "Redemption Song" pairs Cash with the Clash's Joe Strummer, who'd passed away a year earlier, on the Bob Marley anthem how's that for a holy trinity?

American Recordings

Johnny Cash

The Story: The genius of this series debut was its simplicity: All you hear is Cash's voice and his acoustic guitar, and that's all you need to hear. The rest of the magic stems from the careful and creative selection of material, including songs by Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe and Loudon Wainwright III.
The Oddball Cover: "Thirteen" reached way outside Cash's usual realm it was written by punk/metal mainstay Glenn Danzig yet the darkness in the lyrics is ideally suited to The Man in Black.
The Essential Track: "Drive On" is one of several Cash originals on the album, and it's one of his best, an effortless rambler with an instantly memorable chorus.

American III: Solitary Man

Johnny Cash

The Story: Rubin did a good job of honing and defining the American series on its third installment. The production settles into an ideal middle ground between the first album's stark solo presentation and the much more fleshed-out arrangements of Unchained, and the repertoire remains intriguing without overreaching.
The Oddball Cover: "I See A Darkness" finds Cash, improbably but quite movingly, harmonizing in the chorus with the song's author, outsider musician Will Oldham (Palace Music, Bonnie "Prince" Billy).
The Essential Track: "I Won't Back Down," a hit for Tom Petty on his 1989 album Full Moon Fever, sounds in retrospect as if it was always destined for Cash to sing.

The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash

The Story: American IV lived up to its name, batting cleanup and hitting a grand slam. Cash and Rubin take chances covering everything from Depeche Mode to the Eagles but nearly always hit the mark, and the title track is a Cash original that ties everything together. It's a tour de force of material well-suited to Cash's legend, and he delivers like it's the last record of his life. Which, fatefully enough, it was.
The Oddball Cover: "I Hung My Head," a murder ballad, feels timeless and perfect in Cash's hands; the surprise is that it was written by Sting.
The Essential Track: "Hurt" won Cash a Grammy, and for good reason: He so completely redefined the Nine Inch Nails song that the original version now seems like the cover.

American V: A Hundred Highways

Johnny Cash

The Story: As it turned out, the 2003 box set Unearthed didn't clear everything from Rick Rubin's backlog of Cash recordings. The songs assembled here feel almost like a scripted farewell, or even a note from beyond the grave. This is a wearier, resigned Cash, but still with some important things to say, as if he needs to get these things out in the time he has left.
The Oddball Cover: "Further On Up the Road" isn't too much of a stretch for Cash, as he and Bruce Springsteen shared many sensibilities, but Cash's stark rendition comes across almost as an epitaph.
The Essential Track: "If You Could Read My Mind" might be the best pairing of song and artist in the entire American series. When Cash's voice cracks as he sings, "I never thought I could act this way and I've got to say that I just don't get it," he reaches deeper into the heart of the story than Gordon Lightfoot could have imagined.