Despite touring and recording with the country super group The Highwaymen and appearing in several movies in the 1980’s, the decade seemed rather quiet for Johnny Cash compared to past decades and certainly the one ahead. After getting out of his deal with his longtime record label Columbia in 1986, Cash had a brief stint with Mercury Records which ended in 1991. But Cash would return to record some of his most prized and worthy material in years with renowned producer Rick Rubin and American Recordings which appealed to not only Cash’s longtime country fans but a whole new and younger audience.
American III: Solitary Man
, released in 2000, follows its predecessors: 1994’s American Recordings
and 1996’s Unchained
, both Grammy award winning albums (as was this one). Cash was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after the release of Unchained which was the cause of this coming a little later than expected, but he sure came back. Much like the first two records, ‘Solitary Man’ is made up mostly of cover songs of both old classic country/folk songs as well as songs by newer age artists but Johnny still has some new originals here. As usual, the album is for the most part just Johnny and his acoustic guitar and words of a wise old man who’s been through it all, however numerous guests make appearances. Cash’s voice, while maybe sounding a little frail at times at 68, just glows with authenticity and outlook. His acoustic guitar, flowing and simple, and often very calm, really compliments his voice. I often feel Solitary Man is one of the most underrated albums in the American Recordings especially when up against the likes of the debut and The Man Comes Around
. But nevertheless, ‘Solitary Man’ indeed contains some of finest work since his big comeback.
On the subject of covers Cash writes in the album’s notes “Before I can record, I have to hear it, sing it, and know that I can make it my own, or else it won’t work”
. I think he is absolutely right in the sense that just about every cover song he has done has a tendency to bring new meaning to it and actually make it feel like his own. The album opener and Tom Petty number I Won’t Back Down
serves as Cash’s response to his illness and in my opinion one of his most superb covers. Cash’s deep, emotional, inspirational voice shines though and gets a little help from Petty himself in the chorus making a highlight song. Cash’s version of Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man
, the second and final song Petty appears on, is just as good as the opener. The Grammy award winning song is really no different in terms of instruments, but something about it makes it stand out.
Although ‘Solitary Man’ does not contain his most famous cover’s like Hurt
, Personal Jesus
or Rusty Cage
, it does contain the popular and meaningful U2 song, One
, probably the most notable cover here. And while the original is a classic I must say, Cash’s is done perfectly in his traditional acoustic guitar style, with voice that just shines of wisdom and motivation. Before My Time
is the only new original song found here and is a somber, peaceful number. Johnny’s guitar takes a back seat here and his voice is the highlight here making it one of the best on the album. Country Trash
is a short number at less than two minutes, originally recorded by Cash in 1973 that was written about from a little country pride from his childhood. Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat
is probably the darkest song on here, lyrically and instrumentally (the piano adds a dramatic sense) as Johnny tells the tale of lyrics of a man going into an electric chair as he sings “It all began when they come took me from my home and put me on death row, a crime for which I am totally innocent”
and later “Into the mercy seat I climb, my head is shaved, my head is wired and like a moth that tries to enter the bright eye I go shuffling out of life”
. It’s easily one of the most memorable at over 4 minutes.
The more up tempo I’m Leavin’ Now
is the most country-esque song on here with yelping vocals from guest country singer Merle Haggard. Violin is used on the aforementioned song but is put to its greatest use on the old country song and album finale Wayfaring Stranger
, a song which Cash describes as “one of those classic country songs that wouldn’t leave my head”. Cash also gets a little help from Will Oldham who flew in to sing with Cash on his original I See a Darkness
. Other notable guest’s appearances include Sheryl Crow and June Carter Cash singing along with Johnny on Field of Diamonds
American III: Solitary Man
is as worthy as any other American album for a Johnny Cash fan or even someone new to him. And though it may not have as many instantly recognizable songs as others of his, it is an excellent album that Cash obviously put all his heart into and truly shows. Whether its his well done cover songs, original Cash classics or new songs, each is filled with passion and wisdom which makes for some of the most emotional, inspiring and moving music out there from the legend that is Johnny Cash.
I Won’t Back Down
Before My Time