When Rick Rubin went looking for Johnny Cash in 1993, he found a master songwriter and a living depository of American folk lore who’d been left behind by the changing tides of the industry and the times. It’s not that Cash had lost his spirit or brilliance as much as he’d become disconnected from the lean, trim sound of his Sun Records years, when he walked the line between country and nascent rock and roll, and from the blunt honesty and force of the lyrics he wrote for the first quarter-century of his career. And his artistic integrity and self-direction had become at odds with Nashville’s music-factory approach.
Rubin knew that Cash deserved better than to spend his final years playing strings of one-nighters on the state-fair circuit. He also sensed a connection between vintage Cash songs like the murder ballad “Delia’s Gone” and “Never Picked Cotton” and the bad-ass sensibility of gangster rap, metal, and post-punk, goth-infused rock. Working with Cash over the course of the four albums that preceded American V, he paired the old master’s tunes with songs by Glenn Danzig, Depeche Mode, Trent Reznor, and others who could bring out the same dark resonance Cash had perfected in the ’50s, achieving a career renaissance for the Man in Black.
American Recordings | 1994 | This bare-boned masterpiece is built around Cash’s distinctive baritone and acoustic guitar. It plucked songs of love, death, faith, and retribution, like “Delia’s Gone” and “Why Me Lord,” from his own back catalogue and set them among similar tunes by Danzig (“Thirteen”) and Nick Lowe (“The Beast in Me”). The result: a modern context for Cash and his music that appealed to younger listeners by making him a peer of their idols — though he was actually an influence.
Unchained | 1996 | The strategy of mixing old and new songs remained in place for the second Cash/Rubin collaboration, but this time Cash was supported by a band: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Their empathetic playing makes this Cash’s first undiluted rock album, cut when he was 64.
American III: Solitary Man | 2000 | Cash’s energy had been greatly diminished by a myriad of illnesses by the time he and Rubin returned to the studio. But his deepest roots were bared in tunes like the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and the talking blues “Nobody.” He also plunged far into the shadows, covering Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” and Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness,” and in his grip, the Neil Diamond title track lost all trace of schmaltz and became a story of survival and determination.
American IV: The Man Comes Around | 2002 | Cash won his final Grammy for his performance of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” a song he transformed into an unflinching look into the maw of his own impending death. His voice was worn, but that recast tunes like “Personal Jesus” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters” into stone gospel. And his version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” proved prophetic when his beloved June died the next year, leaving behind the wistful, ravaged man who made American V: A Hundred Highways.