Born in Arkansas in February 1932 the young John’s earliest memories were of picking cotton and the Great Depression. It was a world where tragedy was always close at hand - his brother Jack died in a horrific sawmill accident – but there was the solace of music at home and John was writing decent songs by the time he was twelve and singing them in a limpid tenor tone that belied his age. Influenced by Irish folk songs and his mother’s Hymnal, Cash maintained his guitar playing when he enlisted into the United States Air Force. His second marriage to June Carter would provide him with his life rock and it was with her and his children from a previous marriage that Cash created the legendary Carter Cash touring ensemble.
Cash’s earliest Sun recordings included ‘Hey Porter’ and ‘Cry! Cry! Cry! and he was part of the Million Dollar Quartet, alongside Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis who made the (unofficial) greatest rock jam in history. The 1960s are characterised by Cash’s hard living years – his outlaw imagery fed into a stream of Western ballads and frontier sags although his first Grammy was for Jackson, a duet with June.
We pick Johnny up in 1987, working with another Elvis – Costello. His song 'The Big Light' kicks off the excellent Johnny Cash is Coming to Town album, produced by Cowboy Jack Clement. Featuring a superb choice of material, songs from the pens of Guy Clark, Merle Travis and Johnny himself, this disc also features a duet with Waylon Jennings in Charlie Williams’ ‘The Night Hank Williams Came to Town’ and ace sidemen like Kenny Malone, the ever-dependable W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland and Vassar Clements on electric fiddle.
Classic Cash updates songs associated with Johnny from his initial heyday – ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Long Black Veil’, ‘I Walk The Line’, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ – classics in short – with a more modern production twist that was criticised at the time but now sounds revolutionary. This disc is also teamed with Boom Chicka Boom, which in turn is available on one disc with the aforementioned Coming to Town CD. Boom Chicka Boom (a reference to the Tennessee Three’s sound) features another especially written Costello, ‘Hidden Shame’, a splendid version of Harry and Sandy Chapin’s heart breaking ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’.
Water from the Wells of Home (1988) is a classic country disc that is ripe for reappraisal. With guests, family and friends, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, son John and wife June this is remarkable for revisiting cash’s Sun epic ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’, accompanied by the Everly Brothers and daughter Rosanne Cash. J.J. Cale’s ‘Call Me The Breeze’ is covered in glory; Tom T. Hall drops by for ‘The Last of the Drifters’ and Paul McCartney, Cash and Hall combine on ‘New Moon Over Jamaica’. It’s a starry affair.
By contrast the stripped bare beauty of American Recordings (1994), produced by Rick Rubin, heralds the move to pitch Cash upfront, point of view, naked and unadorned. The song choices are impeccable. Loudon Wainwright’s ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’, Glenn Danzig’s ‘Thirteen’, Kristofferson’s ‘Why Me Lord’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ and Tom Waits’ ‘Down There by the Train’ are an eclectic bunch but Johnny gathers them into a persuasive whole. This album was universally praised. It’s a five star item, no question and one of those albums that everyone should hear. On a roll with Rubin the pair liaised on Unchained with the artist’s surname now used as a bold brand as if to say, “nuff said”. This time Johnny is backed up by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood, as well as Flea from Red Hit Chilli Peppers and multi-instrumentalist go-to man Marty Stuart. It’s another all encompassing disc with ‘Beck’s Rowboat’, Petty’s ‘Southern Accents’ and the Hank Snow shaggy dog story ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ sitting alongside Chris Cornell’s ‘Rusty Cage’ and a few standards from years gone by. A marvellous mixture of nostalgia and up to date rock.
To add real grit we’ve also got the Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson VH1 Storytellers where the two old friends and fellow Highwaymen swap songs, jokes and patter to glorious effect while drinking hot water and hot chocolate! Produced by Rick Rubin the stories being told include ‘Drive On’, ‘Me and Paul’ and the genius double whammy of ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. Totally recommended.
American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around continue the ingenious decision to pair Cash with ancient and modern styles but in his capable hands it all works. Nick Cave, David Allen Coe, Trent Reznor’s game changing 'Hurt', the inevitable Grammy for 'Give My Love to Rose' – as he ventured into his 70s Cash was in the form of his life. What Cash and Rubin do in this series is let Cash and the material shine. Now guests include Billy Preston, Roger Manning, Don Henley and Fiona Apple but Johnny is the boss hoss here.
If you really want to get stuck into Cash, and we think you do, then the Unearthed box set is essential. Featuring outtakes and alternative versions of songs from American Recordings I, II and III, and a fourth disc distillation of prime cuts this set went Gold. Worth hearing for Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Chunk of Coal’ and ‘If I Give My Soul’ – outlaw country genius – and the mesmerising ‘My Mother’s Hymn Book’ which is also available as a stand alone disc now.
American V: A Hundred Highways and American VI: Ain’t No Grave are unbelievably poignant, posthumously released discs with emotional performances of songs by Kristofferson, Don Gibson, Gordon Lightfoot and Cash himself. Once you get the bug for this sequence of discs you’ll find it’s an addictive experience.
Completing our selection we have the fine live album The Great Lost Performance, recorded at Asbury Park (comes as a DVD and CD package) and several hits and collections sets. The 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection is a handy primer while The Universal Masters Collection: Classic Johnny Cash expands the format and does exactly what it says on the box. For budget pockets the Silver Collection is no nonsense set of popular songs. These are surely going to send you to the main body of Cash’s work in our catalogue which finds him enjoying a renaissance followed by his classic autumnal years when he created some of the most compelling, intelligent and country music ever made. Terms like legend and icon are flung around too often but in the case of Mr Johnny Cash they don’t even come close to describing him. He is the Man in Black. He is Johnny Cash. American monolith.
Words - Max Bell
American Recordings is the 81st album by the country singer Johnny Cash. It was released in April 1994 (see 1994 in music), the first album issued by American Recordings after its name change from Def American, the album being named after the new label. In 2003, the album was ranked number 364 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin and offered a contract with Rubin's American Recordings label, better known for rap and heavy metal than for country music. Under Rubin's supervision, he recorded the album in his living room, accompanied only by his guitar.
For years Cash had often been at odds with his producers after he had discovered with his first producer, Sam Phillips, that his voice was better suited to a stripped-down musical style. Most famously he disagreed with Jack Clement over his sound, Clement having tried to give Cash's songs a "twangy" feel and to add strings and barbershop-quartet-style singers, and his successful collaboration with Rick Rubin was in part due to Rubin seeking a minimalist sound for his songs.
Unchained is the second album in Johnny Cash's American Recording series (and his 82nd overall). Like all Cash's albums for American, Unchained was produced by Rick Rubin. On the album, Cash is backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as a guest appearance of Flea, bassist from Red Hot Chili Peppers, on "Spiritual", and Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood, both of Fleetwood Mac, on "Sea of Heartbreak". Unchained focuses more on covers and less on original material than the first album in the series. In addition to three of Cash's own compositions, Unchained contained songs by Tom Petty ("Southern Accents"), Soundgarden ("Rusty Cage") and Beck ("Rowboat"), The album also included a cover of the classic 1962 Hank Snow song, "I've Been Everywhere", written by Geoff Mack. In comparison with the country folk sound of Cash's other American Recordings' albums this one has more of a hard, true country rock sound.
American III: Solitary Man is the third album in the American series by Johnny Cash released in 2000 (and his 85th overall album). The album was notable for being Cash's highest charting (#11 Country) solo studio LP since his 1976 One Piece at a Time, an album that reached No. 2 Country based on the title cut. To the present day, Cash's studio albums for the American series have continued to sell and chart extremely well, as evidenced by the platinum #22 POP, #2 C&W American IV: The Man Comes Around (released one year before his death) and the gold, #1 on both charts, American V: A Hundred Highways. Between Unchained and Solitary Man, Cash's health declined due to various ailments, and he was even hospitalized for pneumonia, and the illness forced him to curtail his touring. The album American III: Solitary Man contained Cash's response to his illness, typified by a version of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", as well as a version of U2's "One".
American IV: The Man Comes Around is the fourth album in the American series by Johnny Cash, released in 2002. The majority of songs are covers which Cash performs in his own spare style, with help from producer Rick Rubin. For instance, for the song “Personal Jesus”, Rubin asked Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante to re-work an acoustic version of Martin Gore’s song, which featured a simple acoustic riff that stripped down the song to a blues style. He receives backing vocal assistance from various artists, including Fiona Apple, Nick Cave, and Don Henley.American IV was the final Cash album released during his lifetime; though the Unearthed Box Set was compiled prior to his death, it was not released until two months later. It was also his first non-compilation album to go gold (selling over 500,000 copies) in thirty years. Additionally, the album won “Album of the Year” award at the 2003 CMA Awards.
The video for “Hurt”, a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in 1994, was nominated in seven categories at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards and won the award for Best Cinematography. In February 2003, mere days before his 71st birthday, Cash won another Grammy Award for Best Country Male Vocal Performance for “Give My Love To Rose,” a song Cash had originally recorded in the late 1950s. The music video for “Hurt” also won a Grammy for Best Short Form Video at the 2004 Awards.
Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor admitted that he was initially “flattered” but worried that “the idea sounded a bit gimmicky,” but when he heard the song and saw the video for the first time, Reznor said he was deeply moved and found Cash’s cover beautiful and meaningful.
American V: A Hundred Highways is the 93rd overall album and a posthumous album by Johnny Cash released on July 4, 2006. As the title implies, it is the fifth entry in Cash's American series. Like its predecessors, American V: A Hundred Highways is produced by Rick Rubin
American VI: Ain't No Grave is a posthumous album by Johnny Cash, released February 23, 2010, on American Recordings and Lost Highway Records. Its release was three days prior to what would have been Cash's 78th birthday. The album's music was recorded during the same sessions as American V: A Hundred Highways (2006). The album debuted at number three on the US Billboard 200 chart.
My Mother's Hymn Book is a collection of Christian spiritual songs and hymns that Cash originally learned from his mother while growing up. The album features only Cash's voice and a single acoustic guitar. This disc was released as a stand alone disc the following year (his 89th overall album) under the same title, and peaked at #9 on the Christian music album chart. In the album's liner notes Cash mentions that this is his favorite album he ever made.
VH1 Storytellers is the 83rd overall album and is a live album by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, released in 1998 (see 1998 in music) on American Recordings. The album was produced by Rick Rubin and was the third record released as part of Cash's 9-year period of collaboration with Rubin. The opening track is a duet with Cash and Nelson, followed by alternating solos by both artists. Cash and Nelson discuss the songs and their origins between tracks on the recording.
The official release of Johnny Cash’s legendary performance from 1990, at the Paramount Theatre, NJ.