There’s a long and winding queue of people who claimed credit for the late-life creative and commercial revival of Johnny Cash, starting with whoever enticed him to play solo acoustic sets at hipster-hangs like the Viking Room and SXSW, and of course, The Resurrector himself, producer Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who took the reigns and then wisely let them loose for Cash’s rightly acclaimed 1994 collection American Recordings, which spawned three sequels and enough outtakes to constitute a box set after his death.
Ironically, Columbia, the label that shouldered the blame for axing the tall tree that was Cash in the ‘80s, has since embraced their prodigal son, scouring the vaults for old and unreleased cuts, stripping off the Nashville woo-woo singers and varnish that had originally turned the Sun Rockabilly into a Top Ten Pop artist in 1959, in Johnny’s own Bootleg Series. And Cash may have never towered higher than in death: Once, the only person who wrote books about Cash was Cash himself. These days, everybody is, uh, cashing in.
The latest, to its credit, doesn’t take up much room on the shelf: The American Recordings, by certified academic and poet Tony Tost (winner of the 2003 Walt Whitman Award, it says here) is also the latest in the 33 1/3series, short, pocket-sized volumes where writers of note (and not) dissect one “classic” album in whatever fashion suits them. Some of these address the recording process itself, telling us what was recorded when, with whom, and what for, while others take a more literary approach, using a CD to examine culture, politics and mythology and their own navels.
Tost’s book falls in the latter category. (If you want the former, Grahame Thomson’s unsubtly-titled, The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings should fill the bill.) If you only perused the introduction in a bookstore, you could quite logically assume Tost was yet another of those slumming word-jockeys whose essays on obscure B-sides fill the Oxford American’s annual Southern Music issues. (On the very first page, Cash gets framed as “the final prophet in a slow fervor at the pulpit.”)
Yet after Tost gets all the God—versus-Devil, dissolution and drugs—versus rightousness and good works, and sancity—versus-sex metaphors and references off his chest, he mostly settles down to offer opinionated insights into each individual song on the album, focusing on what these songs say about the Cash the myth, the singer (“a gift” he says, quoting Cash’s mother after his voice changed as a child), and the man. Each song gets its own brief chapter,with his favorite, naturally, getting him the most poetically inflamed.
The best of this, perhaps inevitably, see Tost walking down the same dusty, American roads that Greil Marcus explored in his game-changing Mystery Train and Invisible Republic (since retitled The Old Weird America after its most quoted turn-o-phrase); the latter focused on Bob Dylan’s famed “Basement Tapes” through the cracked prism of Harry Smith’s celebrated bootleg Anthology of American Folk Music, and concluded that a nation founded in so much muck and mystery, violence and magic, had to be worth saving. In “Delia” he traces the murder ballad that made Cash sound dangerous again from the real-life killing news stories to a Bahamian folk song, then back to the United States again.
The American Recordings version was Cash’s stab at the song, with Cash assuming assuming a first-person perspective, and strapping his victim to a chair to toy with her before he shoots her. Yost then defends Cash from the feminist charge of misoginy. So, Cash really wasn’t a beast in a rusty cage, even if he could cover Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” with a conviction the writer himself couldn’t muster.
Tost doesn’t like it much when Cash’s spiritual side sneaks out; He dismisses Cash’s weary, nervy adaptation of Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord” without even acknowledging the wry twist of this modern hymn; the singer’s not complaining, as the title suggests, but expressing a kind of awe that God has embraced the sinner instead of stricking him down. And limiting this book to the 33 1/3 format means that the subsequent albums aren’t dissected. Thus, American IV, the Rubin recordings that cemented Cash’s stature by allowing us to look and listen to a dying hell-raiser hoping for heaven, goes unexamined. It may not have been the best album Cash ever made, but it was the bravest. If Tost writes that book, it might be worth reading, too.