Anniversary Album: 30 Years of ‘American Recordings’ by Johnny Cash

Thirty years ago, Johnny Cash rejuvenated his career, becoming one of the most vital artists of the ’90s at a time when most had written him off as a nostalgia act. With the help of producer Rick Rubin, he recorded the album American Recordings, which was brilliant in its own right and also kicked off an incredible stretch of similar albums that continued until Cash’s death in 2003, and even beyond.

Videos by American Songwriter

Because of how it did indeed serve as the jumping-off point for the rest of the albums Cash would do with Rubin, the merits of that first one can sometimes get overlooked. Let’s go back and look at how this American Recordings came to pass, since you might have forgotten how unlikely it all was.

An Artist Waiting to be Rediscovered

Looking back at it now, we know that Johnny Cash made a series of albums with Rick Rubin, each one seeming to build upon the excellence of the one before it. That means there’s a younger generation that might not realize that, even for all his talent, this resurgence by Cash was nothing short of miraculous.

Prior to American Recordings, Cash was viewed as a guy whose finest days were part of some dusty past. He’d show up occasionally in some TV movie or variety show and get his due reverence. But the idea that he might once again release music of relevance seemed ridiculously far-fetched.

And it was just as far-fetched that Rubin might be the producer to turn it all around for Cash. Although he had begun to branch out to other forms of music, he was still mostly known at this time as a producer of rap or hard rock. Would he try to turn Cash into something he wasn’t?

Keeping It Simple

American Recordings was somehow revelatory and obvious all at once. Yes, it was stunning to hear Cash, age 62 at the time of the album’s release in 1994, sounding so great after so many years of records that didn’t live up to his ability. But Rubin’s brilliance was in realizing something that producers, and Cash himself, had misunderstood for about 25 years: That the artist was at his best when relatively unadorned.

Rubin simply sat Cash in a room, sometimes in Tennessee and sometimes in Los Angeles, put good material in front of him, and let Cash go at it with an acoustic guitar and vocal. Truth be told, that acoustic guitar playing is so minimal as to be an afterthought. In most cases with these songs, Cash’s voice carries all the load, and it’s more than enough.

Listening to American Recordings again, you might be surprised to hear how offhand and low-key it all sounds. On later collaborations, the portent was palpable, practically another instrument. But here, even on a song like Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me,” which seems to reference Cash’s rabble-rousing reputation, he simply sings the melody and takes the words as they come, letting the listeners draw those associations.

One of the underrated parts of this record is how sharp Cash’s songwriting is. Tracks like “Drive On” and “Redemption” stand toe-to-toe with those by songwriting guns-for-hire such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Kris Kristofferson. In Cash’s hands, it all blends into a shapeshifting narrative about love and loss, life and death, salvation and damnation—all delivered by a guide with a voice that convinces us, via its booming authority, that it knows whereof it speaks.

Did you remember that American Recordings ends with Cash’s live rendering of Loudon Wainwright III’s sweetly goofy parable “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry?” That should give you a sense that maybe Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin weren’t consciously trying to put a stamp on music history with this album. That they ended up doing so anyway is testament to the Man in Black, who, thanks to a nudge from his producer, reestablished himself as one of the ultimate purveyors of musical truth and integrity.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

Leave a Reply

Classic Chart Check-In: 5 Underrated Gems in the Top 40 from 55 Years Ago This Week