How The ‘American Recordings’ Series Revitalized Johnny Cash’s Career

When we consider Johnny Cash’s legacy today, we might initially think of his legendary performances at Folsom and San Quentin. We also might think of his beginnings with Sun Records, where he released classics like “I Walk the Line” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Finally, we think of his late-career renaissance, which reached its peak with his evocative cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” When looking at that last stage, it’s interesting to consider how we got there. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cash’s career had grown stagnant. Pretty much everyone was aware of his past brilliance, but no one had much interest in hearing his recent albums, which lacked the inspiration of past efforts. Just when it looked like Johnny Cash had said everything he had to say, he embarked on one of the most memorable comebacks in music history.

Johnny Cash’s comeback really began in 1993, when U2 brought him in to sing on “The Wanderer,” the closing track to their underrated Zooropa album. It was a powerful ballad, perfectly suited to Cash’s vocal style. He gave the song a heavy dosage of gravitas — more than even Bono could have provided — and after years of new material that few paid much attention, it was a reminder of everything that Johnny Cash was still capable of.

That was just the beginning, however, and things would really take off in 1994, when he released the first American Recordings album. This album featured Cash’s revelatory takes on classics like Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” and Tom Waits’ “Down There By the Train,” though the most enduring number here might be Cash’s own “Delia’s Gone,” an unsettling-but-darkly-enjoyable tune about a man getting revenge on his cheating wife in the most brutal way possible. At any rate, the album had re-introduced Johnny Cash to the music world at large, and it served notice that Cash still had a lot left in the tank.

After the success of American Recordings, a sequel would be released in 1996. That album, American II: Unchained is probably best known for Cash’s take on Geoff Mack’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Cash’s version is now considered to be the definitive version of the song. Perhaps more intriguing, though, was his take on Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” which Petty himself was so moved by that he vowed to never perform the song in concert again (he eventually would perform it live at a show in his hometown of Gainesville in 2006, but it has not been played since). But the most surprising track here was his cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” While Chris Cornell howled that song five years earlier, Cash’s delivery is subtle, but undeniably authoritative.

Four years later, after being hospitalized for pneumonia (among other ailments), Cash’s physical condition was deteriorating, but he still managed to come through with American III: Solitary Man. This album would feature another Tom Petty cover (“I Won’t Back Down”), but he also ventured further into other musical worlds, taking on Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat,” and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness.” The best-known number from this set, however, was his take on U2’s “One.” Seven years after joining U2 for “The Wanderer,” Cash was now taking on arguably U2’s most famous song. There was no doubt that he did it justice.

2002’s The Man Comes Around is obviously, and understandably best known for “Hurt,” but there are certainly plenty of other fascinating tracks to be found there. His surprising take on Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is both effective, and a bit ghoulish considering he would pass away just one year later. Throughout the album, as Cash goes through songs like Sting’s “I Hung My Head,” and the traditional funeral song “Danny Boy,” we see Johnny Cash directly confronting his own mortality. The result can be rather hard to get through, but it’s certainly well worth your time.

After Cash’s death in 2003, two more additions of the American Recordings series would be released posthumously, 2006’s A Hundred Highways and 2010’s Ain’t No Grave. One can only guess that there is plenty more great music from Cash hiding in the vaults, just waiting to be heard. At any rate, though, the American Recordings series was a stunning success, one that altered our entire perception of one of the 20th century’s most important performers.