Between 1997 and 1999, the press periodically reported that Johnny Cash was mortally ill. American III: Solitary Man suggests, however, that rumors of his impending death may have been somewhat exaggerated. Granted, Cash’s health has weakened considerably over the last few years but this release confirms that his creative powers are still very much intact. Indeed, this latest installment in Cash’s series of Grammy-winning collaborations with rock/rap producer Rick Rubin ranks among the finest moments in a recording career that has lasted nearly half a century.
Solitary Man returns to the more sparse textures that characterized Cash’s first album with Rubin (1994’s American Recordings) as The Man in Black’s rugged, quavering baritone is placed amid simple configurations of acoustic guitar, organ, piano, fiddle and accordion, provided by a stellar cast of helpers. Combining startling cover versions with original material, this new release highlights both Cash’s songwriting skills and his sensitivity as an interpreter and performer of the work of other artists.
Alluding to his advancing years and his recent bouts of illness, Cash confides in his liner notes, “I wouldn’t trade my future for anyone’s I know”. But although Solitary Man is undeniably the work of an individual with an acute sense of his own mortality, there’s not a shred of self-pity on this album. Rather, it’s the work of a man with no illusions regarding what lies ahead, a man taking stock of his past and with a heightened awareness of the present moment and of those who share it with him.
Solitary Man begins on a defiant note with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. The presence of Petty singing back-up and playing organ notwithstanding, Cash gracefully appropriates the song, re-fashioning it with a measure of gravitas absent from the original. Thus the track takes on a significance and poignancy that transcend its somewhat one-dimensional pop lyric.
The impact of popular music has always been linked with its capacity to enable an individual listener to identify with a song at some affective level and to feel as if he or she were its sole intended recipient. On Solitary Man that effect is magnified as a result of Rubin’s signature under-production—a paring down of the instrumentation and the arrangements coupled with a foregrounding of Cash’s vocals. The stripping-away of the usual layers of studio artifice moves listeners beyond a basic identification with the sentiments expressed and gives the impression of physical proximity, of almost being in the same room as Cash.
Nevertheless, the success of the cover versions on Solitary Man rests ultimately with Cash’s singing itself, which enhances the intimacy of the minimal mix. His vocals are unaffected yet immensely affecting, the obvious fragility of his voice never once translating to weakness but instead to a quiet, dignified strength that enables him to get to the heart of the matter, the essence of others’ songs. Consequently his renditions of some old and not-so-old tracks amplify and intensify their emotive content while inscribing new meanings and nuances.
Speaking of his approach to covers—again in the liner notes—Cash observes that, above all else, “the song is the thing that matters . . . . I have to . . . know that I can make it feel like my own, or it won’t work”. Time after time on Solitary Man it “works” as Cash makes you believe that the songs covered on this album are indeed his own.
Incontrovertible evidence of that ability can be heard on the remarkable re-casting of Nick Cave’s death row narrative “The Mercy Seat”. Gone is the camp splendor of Cave’s harrowing histrionics and, in its place, there’s a conversational vocal delivery as Cash half sings/half speaks his character’s final moments in the electric chair. The frantic instrumental backing of the original is reduced to a hovering organ and a billowing piano melody (courtesy of Benmont Tench), but the results are no less powerful.
Whereas Cave struggles to make himself heard over the rising cacophony, Cash’s vocals hold sway over the spare instrumentation and, despite the absence of Cave’s theatricality, Cash’s measured tones still render the sense of foreboding and the urgency that lie at the heart of the song. As a result, Cash’s vocal performance bestows upon “The Mercy Seat” a degree of stark realism absent from its original incarnation. It seems entirely appropriate that a song that derives from an Australian’s imagined mythology of the American South should be recorded by a Southerner in a way that transforms it from accomplished pastiche to chilling psychological verisimilitude.
While the title track, a version of Neil Diamond’s 1966 hit, and the understated cover of U2’s melancholy love song “One” offer further proof of Cash’s talent for working wonders with others’ material, his interpretative skills are heard at their best on Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness”. This is a beautiful rendering of Oldham’s song—in which one man’s confession of the unnamable demons plaguing him becomes a snapshot of tormented masculinity. Reminiscent of Russell Banks’ Affliction, the grim naturalism of this song is accentuated as the presence of two generations of vocalists (Oldham himself duets with Cash) symbolically embodies the historical continuity of the ills at the core of the lyrics. Moreover, the contrast between Cash’s noticeably faltering, damaged voice and Oldham’s relatively youthful voice is heartbreaking.
Not all of the covers on Solitary Man are culled from contemporary mainstream or alternative fare. Cash displays his versatility, as well as his rich musical heritage, by resurrecting “Nobody”, a one-hundred-year-old vaudeville tune by Egbert Williams. While this song retains its comedy, thanks in large part to the ironic tone of self-mockery subtly injected by Cash, humor is definitely not an ingredient of the tender 18th-century ballad “Mary of the Wild Moor”, to which Sheryl Crow contributes some aptly mournful accordion.
Cash revisits another old treasure on “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)”. This may well be a much-covered number—it’s been done by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan—yet it clearly occupies a special place in Cash’s heart insofar as his performance of the song won him first place in a talent competition as a youth. For more recent material Cash turns to a fellow country music rebel, re-working David Allan Coe’s delicate 1974 love song “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)?”, which asks some hard questions about the limits of commitment.
Johnny Cash’s own compositions are no less compelling than the other material gathered on Solitary Man. Rather than showing the signs of weakness that characterize the work of so many artists in the twilight of their careers, Cash’s songwriting is as sharp as ever, combining his trademark intelligence, insight and wit. “Before My Time”, for example, is a touching retrospective that foregrounds Cash’s deceptively simple lyricism and his ability to blend universal truths with the specificity of personal experience. On this track he pens, simultaneously, a humbling meditation on his place in history—putting himself in the greater scheme of things—and a moving love song. Similarly tender is “Field Of Diamonds”. Originally recorded with Waylon Jennings in 1986, this new version is enhanced by the delicate backing duet of June Carter Cash and Sheryl Crow.
More playful in tone are “I’m Leavin’ Now”, on which Cash and old friend Merle Haggard whoop it up with Marty Stuart on guitar, and “Country Trash”, a re-visiting of a track that Cash had already recorded on his 1973 album Any Old Wind That Blows. Showcasing Cash’s self-deprecating humor as he evokes his own family background, “Country Trash” is structured around a listing of the possessions that confer upon the speaker that humble identity of the title—at least according to the song’s narrative.
Interestingly, that motif of listing, or enumerating, has been present in the material written or performed by Cash since the start of his career. Although it’s often used to comic effect, it nevertheless underscores his rootedness in the American poetic tradition, insofar as it embodies Walt Whitman’s ideal of a democratic aesthetic based on a non-hierarchical cataloguing of the components of one’s immediate material world.
Johnny Cash might have begun Solitary Man saying that he wouldn’t back down, but on the final cut he trades defiance for faith in the face of life’s trials. His version of the old spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” is perhaps the most poignant track on this CD. With the haunting accompaniment of Laura Cash on fiddle and Crow on accordion, this listing of the family members with whom the singer will be reunited in death makes for a sublime closer to an album, if not to a career. While his is, more than ever before, the voice of an aging man and while some of the strength may be gone, on this batch of songs of love, God and murder, Johnny Cash still communicates his faith, wisdom, and experience with a simple power that few living artists can match.