Johnny Cash’s career followed an odd trajectory. To someone like myself, who was not alive during his initial heyday, the Man in Black seemed always to be a legend, more a symbol than a living and working musician. As a testament to this, he was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. Albeit a great honor, it more or less marked the end of his career as a viable top-selling artist. Cash had been hugely successful in the 1950s and ‘60s, charting many singles and issuing his two great live-in-prison albums, 1968’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and, the following year, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. The 1970s, however, saw his popularity slowly dwindle and the hits dry up. So, at the dawning of his fourth decade in music, Johnny Cash was canonized and, thereby, put out to pasture. We now know that he would rise again in the 1990s, teaming with producer Rick Rubin to release his coolest albums since 1969 and winning new alt-era fans with his interpretations of songs by the likes of Tom Waits and Soundgarden. These recordings also oozed a relaxed, intimate authenticity that resonated with listeners, and bookending a career that began with simple, yet powerfully alive, Sun Records tracks such as “Hey Porter”, “Get Rhythm”, and “Guess Things Happen That Way”.
Now, with Personal File, we are given another opportunity to feel close to Johnny Cash, to close our eyes and find ourselves there in the room with him, hearing his stories and his songs, to lean gently toward his warm and resonant baritone and find that Johnny’s reveries have become our own. Recovered from the House of Cash in Tennessee, these 49 previously unreleased tracks, recorded primarily in 1973 and ‘74 (and up through 1982), are our inheritance, a gift from his estate to be shared with anyone who cares to listen. And you, discerning music fan, should care. These two discs offer a fascinating portrait of Johnny Cash.
Most of the numbers he plays here are covers that span nearly a century of songwriting, including late-19th century parlour ballads, gospels, a song from the Louvin Brothers, and John Prine’s “Paradise”, from that man’s classic 1971 self-titled debut. Cash understood the great tradition that he had become a part of. He passes these songs along to us as a storyteller, though, and not as a musicologist. Most of the tracks here contain preambles, Cash casually explaining the history of a song or why it was personally important to him. He also shares bits of wisdom about the craft of music-making itself, such as: “The best ideas for songwriting are the true stories that happened.” This resonates with his folk heritage, wherein a great many songs were composed as artful ways of preserving the details and impact of a particularly important event, such as a mining disaster or the building of a railroad.
At one point, Cash also sheds some insight into why these sessions might have been hidden away in a back room for 20 to 30 years. While introducing a track he co-wrote, “It’s All Over” he says about some of his recordings, “Maybe the record company didn’t feel they were up to par.” We don’t know whether or not Columbia, at the time of the inception of these recordings, ever stated outright that they had no interest in releasing some form of Personal File, but it’s likely that Johnny Cash understood that this project wasn’t commercially viable in the 1970s, an era when country music was maturing into the slickly marketed machine it would soon become.
Today, however, they ring truer than anything else he recorded during that same, largely unsuccessful period of time. Spare and unadorned, these homespun sessions from Johnny Cash require an attentive ear for their quiet magic to be heard, but that investment yields a great pay-off. Gorgeously packaged and with excellent liner notes from Greil Marcus, Personal File is a must-have for all but the most casual of fans, to be shelved alongside The Sun Years, Folsom Prison, and American Recordings as representing the best of the many chapters of the long and amazing career of Johnny Cash.