By 1994, Johnny Cash’s status as an icon of not only country music but of American popular culture was already firmly secure, the songs from his unrivaled creative peak in the 1960s defining country’s “Golden Era” even as the content and form of those songs challenged the genre’s clean-cut mainstream conventions, and his larger-than-life image as The Man in Black forever changing the way that the most compelling recording artists—those who truly earn the term—craft a public persona that’s as inseparable from their music as is their voice. His legacy—challenged within the genre only by Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton, but extending farther beyond the genre’s borders than any other—had made him a legend, but what Cash had not been for decades was commercially or artistically relevant. Most legends, faced with such prospects, either fade gradually from public view or continue to release albums that undermine their reputations and leave new generations of would-be fans confused.
But Cash, his persona having been founded on defying the expectations at every turn, did no such thing. Instead, he teamed with producer Rick Rubin and released American Recordings, a landmark album that stands as the single most important, most daring country album released in the 1990s. The album not only made Cash cool among Nirvana’s fanbase—the video for “Delia’s Gone” even turned up on Beavis & Butthead—but it completely changed the way that country music’s veterans are allowed to make music. American Recordings paved the way for artists like Lynn (whose Van Lear Rose certainly holds its own in the company of American Recordings), Haggard, Parton, and George Jones, to look beyond the confines of Music Row (Haggard, for instance, released his excellent If I Could Only Fly on punk label Epitaph) for the opportunity to record new material that rivals or often surpasses their earlier work rather than retire to the Grand Ole Opry stage to sing their past hits for an increasingly disinterested audience. Though the subsequent albums in the American Recordings series rapidly declined in quality, succumbing to poor choices of cover songs and guest artists as much as to Cash’s failing health, the first album was and still is powerful enough to recontextualize Johnny Cash’s career.
Rubin’s role in producing the album was, by his standards, relatively minimalist. He simply gave Cash an acoustic guitar and a microphone and more or less got the hell out of the way. At the time, the stripped-down aesthetic seemed revelatory, even genius. Released simultaneously with Rubin’s horrifying shit-storm of an album from The Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash’s Personal File immediately casts doubt on the genius of American Recordings’ production. With the bulk of its 49 tracks recorded by Cash himself at his home studio in 1973, armed only with an acoustic guitar and his baritone at the absolute height of its power, Personal File shows that Cash had been using an intimate, spare setting for more than two decades before he and Rubin launched the second phase of his career. This in no way diminishes the power of American Recordings or makes its production any less important to its success. Instead, Personal File merely adds another level of postmodern complexity to Cash’s artistic mythology, making his series of collaborations with Rubin seem somehow like an unavoidable path, one that blurs the line between the singer’s private and public lives.
Devastating as his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” may have been, Cash has rarely sounded as accessible as does on Personal File. Compiled by Gregg Geller (who also compiled the box set Johnny Cash: The Legend), the tracks are divided onto two discs. The first set consists of songs—many of them lesser-known public domain folk songs, but also including several originals by Cash and covers of The Louvin Brothers and Kris Kristofferson, among other major songwriters—that explore the importance of family. Most interestingly, it’s a collection that connects the use of outsized storytelling (in songs like “Saginaw, Michigan” and “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” and in Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem, “The Cremation Of Sam McGee”) in building an identity with the use of more direct and more honest emotional expression (the disc closes with an exceptional version of step-daughter Carlene Carter’s “It Takes One To Know Me”) to build the relationships that form a family. The album recognizes the brutality of both Cash and the country genre’s most difficult material—what with the shooting a man in Reno and all—and finds an exceedingly smart, self-aware way to reconcile it with the sensitivity of a loving husband and father.
The second disc underwhelms in direct comparison to the first, but to precious little else. A collection of gospel numbers (standards of Southern gospel, primarily, but with a few originals mixed in), it’s a testament to the depth of Cash’s religious conviction, without the Billy Graham slideshow that Cash projected at his concerts during the 1970s. One of the Cash originals, “No Earthly Good,” actually plays as a more cogent attack on the current Evangelical climate than does anything on The Dixie Chicks’ lite-rock hissyfit, and “If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman” suggests that someone, though the writer is unknown, cracked The Da Vinci Code long before Dan Brown. As a reminder that religion is, above all, intended to inspire intensely personal reflection, the second disc makes for a great listen—there’s a genuine warmth to Cash’s delivery—though daughter Rosanne tackled more complicated issues on her extraordinary Black Cadillac earlier this year.
Invaluable as a historical document, Personal File ultimately stands as a captivating portrait of Cash at his most vital, recording in a style and setting that honors the profound personal significance of songs that nonetheless expand upon his artistic vision. It’s a vision that, at this point, seems boundless, given that even a posthumously released collection can have career-spanning implications for someone who has already been canonized. And with the fifth album in the American Recordings series still on the way, it’s still entirely possible, in spite of Rubin’s recent output, that Cash’s greatness will only continue to grow. For now, words like “legend” and “icon” don’t do justice to the Johnny Cash heard on Personal File.