American III: Solitary Man
There exists a rarified echelon of artists whose work transcends genre, fads, and the test of time, artists whose every work, even the most minor, should be heard and revered. Surely, Johnny Cash has earned a place on what is an incredibly short list, standing alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, deserving to be called no less than a legend and inspiration.
The Man in Black’s third album with producer Rick Rubin, American III: Solitary Man, is as immediate and engrossing as its two predecessors. The stark atmosphere of this record is so intimate that it often gives me chills. Cash’s world-weary baritone is at the front of the mix, and he sounds so close, it feels as though he’s sitting next to me, strumming his acoustic guitar and singing straight to me. Cash is always the centerpiece of the songs, and even when they’re filled out with organ, piano, additional guitars, or backing vocals, the feeling that Johnny Cash is in the room with you never leaves.
Even more amazing is that while more than half the album is made up of covers of songs by other, often well-known songwriters, Cash makes them his own, and it’s difficult to imagine them as anyone else’s. Take the title track, “Solitary Man” — I actually didn’t even relate it to Neil Diamond’s original until I sat down to an in-depth perusal of the liner notes! It’s not that Cash changes the melody or structure of the songs dramatically, it’s the way he strips the songs down to their essence, to the heart of what’s there, that makes the songs his. Incredibly, Cash achieves this feat with songs as distinctive as U2’s “One,” and best of all, Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat,” a chilling song made all the more chilling by Cash’s plaintive delivery and the subtle backup provided by organ, piano, and guitar.
I believe it’s this ability (along with Cash’s status as a legend) that inspired so many other well-known and respected artists to work with him on these recordings. Tom Petty’s distinctively nasal voice harmonizes with Cash on a cover of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and on “Solitary Man,” while longtime Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench contribute guitar and keys, respectively, to the album. Similarly, Wil Oldham contributes harmony vocals to Cash’s version of his “I See a Darkness,” while Sheryl Crow adds accordion to “Mary of the Wild Moor” and the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.”
Crow also contributes to an unlikely vocal trio with Cash and wife June Carter Cash on the beautiful “Field Of Diamonds,” one of four new compositions from Cash himself. Another of Cash’s own songs, “I’m Leavin’ Now,” is a fantastic duet with Merle Haggard. My favorite of Cash’s compositions, though, is the ironic, witty “Country Trash,” with its sentiment coming across much like that of “I Won’t Back Down” — “Let the thunder roll, and the lightning crash/ I’m doing all right for country trash.” At first blush, it might seem an unusually upbeat message for the Man In Black, but it’s as fitting an epithet as anything, ending “But we’ll all be equal under the grass/ And God’s got a heaven for country trash.” You’ve done better than “all right,” Mr. Cash — and then some.
American Recordings, 2100 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404