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Cash on the Barrelhead

After a period of obscurity, Johnny Cash is once again a wanted man.

For most people, Cash simply disappeared during the 1980s. In actuality, his career was sucked into a black hole known as Mercury/Polygram, where Cash was signed in 1986 after his relationship with Columbia Records had run its 27-year course. Though he released some of the finest records of his career during his stint on the label, including Water From the Wells of Home (which featured the likes of Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers) and Mystery of Life (which contained a classic performance of "Wanted Man"), Cash had begun to feel like an old man trapped inside history books. He was the outlaw who couldn't get arrested.

"I was at a session in downtown Nashville one day, and somebody came in from Randy Travis's record company," Cash recalls. "I said, 'What's goin' on over there?' And he said, 'Aw, we're just lookin' for another Randy Travis.' I said, 'What's wrong with the one you got? You got a good one, you oughta keep him and let people know about him. I heard demographics so much I wanted to vomit. I stopped tryin' to get Nashville to do anything for me record-wise.

"But I never think about radio. I never wonder if they're playing my records. It's very liberating. When I release a record, I don't run and buy Billboard magazine. Never did, really. My people would always lay it on my desk in front of me or comment on it, and they'd show it to me, but I don't think I ever bought a copy of Billboard magazine. I really don't think I have. That's never really been where it's at."

In retrospect, Cash's signing to American Recordings in 1994 was a stroke not of desperation but of cold-blooded genius. Rubin was Cash's kind of guy--someone who treated Cash not as a waxwork legend but as a viable performer whose best years were still in front of him. Rubin was probably smart enough to know he wouldn't make much money with Cash, but he was also sharp enough to know he'd make a great record with the Man in Black. Look--how the hell could anyone go wrong giving Cash a guitar and hitting the "record" button on the tape machine?

American Recordings, released three years ago, would prove to be perhaps Cash's oddest--and, in some twisted way, most fulfilling--record from start to finish. Even its cover seemed to warn of what was inside: With a wide-open sky behind him and two hellhounds by his side, Cash stands cloaked in nightmare black. He props his guitar case in front of him and looks straight at--or, more accurately, straight through--the camera. It's as though he's daring you to listen to this unholy assortment of murder ballads and religious hymns and war stories--to music that drips with blood.

Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and he sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others--not to mention a few of his older, lesser-known songs--and wrings the life (and death) from them. Contained within is a stark, desolate portrait of a man (or men, depending upon whether you consider this a protracted monologue or an album of vignettes) who struggles with the demons inside his soul until he finally gives up and gives in. And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, Cash sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell: "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

Cash says there were seventy songs recorded for American Recordings, fourteen of which turn up on the highly sought-after American Outtakes bootleg CD that's every bit as good as the original--perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's L.A. living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease ("Friends in California," especially) than its predecessor: Cash's voice is piercing and doomsaying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the devil.

Particularly remarkable are Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar), and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash says. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me.

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