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.