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Johnny Cash
American III: Solitary Man
American Recording Company

Now that Johnny is recovering from his annual bout with pneumonia, letís recap. He does not have Parkinsonís. He does have Shy-Dragerís. He does not have radio-play. He does have a new recording that is flying out of the stores. He has a whole new generation of fans that share Cashís one-digit sentiment for mainstream radio, country or otherwise. Consider it a blessing that the gems on this album wonít be sandwiched between the country equivalent of Winger and Tiffany.

The first tune gives a Buddy Holly fake-out before it sinks in. Instead of "Maybe Baby," itís an unexpectedly spry version of "Wonít Back Down." Tom Petty provides cartoony backing vocals. The tone is very clean and simple with meaty acoustics. The title track, being the Neil Diamond standard, continues the solid guitar backing set forth. Beautifully delivered, and again with minimal production. The instruments and Petty again in the background keep Johnny in the focus.

"That Lucky Old Sun" is a front-porch folk song akin to "Old Man River." It must be a part of his life like "Folsom Prison" is a part of mine. Cash won a talent contest with this one as a youth. Lazy and sad, itís a very fitting traditional song made new to many of us. Bass piano accents keeping time add to the old-tyme feel. "One" will get the most amazement from the younger crowd, especially if you surprise someone with it. Once the shock of recognition wears off, it becomes Johnnyís song. The rhythm is perfectly suited for desperate country-folk. It suddenly makes sense in its context. The tragic humor of "Nobody" conjures images of Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante. A 100-year-old vaudeville tune stolen from delta blues. Itís heavy on self-pity and lonesome lyrics.

Occasionally, a song affirms things you already now. Touching something you havenít found the words for. "I See A Darkness" does exactly that. I still come close to tears every time I hear it. The songwriter, Will Oldham, supports beautifully on vocals. This song is so powerful to me that it can explain itself best. Listen to it alone and sober. Itís reassuring to know that someone else understands. Some complicated feelings are addressed simply in its slow, rising, hopeful message.

A lot of anticipation accompanied Nick Caveís "Mercy Seat." And perhaps because of the previous track, it didnít hold as much as I had hoped. While still poignant and well arranged, it isnít as exciting or gratifying as it should have been. The simple guitar leads in nicely, but then sinks into the back. Harmonica would have been nice. The rolling piano and midi harpsichord provide a full score more Hollywood than blues, while still weird and interesting.

Current country rebel David Alan Coe is represented by "Will You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)." A lovely love song testing romantic loyalties, it was last seen with Tanya Tucker. Johnny makes it sound like an ancient folk tune. An unusually sensitive thought from Coe, whose favorite lyric is "David Alan Coe." This song will be the next "Wedding Song." That or emergency rooms will see an increase in granite-related injuries. From stone to "Field of Diamonds." On this family number, Johnny sings bass, June Carter sings tenor, and little Sheryl Crow joins right in there. Donít worry, though, Sheryl sings so sweetly that you wonít even know that itís her. The Cashís must have learnt her a thing or two about warmth and timbre. Juneís familiar support is a welcome comfort. And for all the times she has saved Johnnyís life, we owe her a lifetime of thanks.

While he has been around for eons, Johnny wants us to know there was love fulfilled and unrequited "Before My Time." A gentle foray into nostalgia that shows his writing has not suffered. I wonder how long these songs have been rattling around. "Country Trash" is prime. You can read anything you want into this light-hearted jaunt. A metaphor for lifeís journey and social placement, or just take it for face value. Either way, it taps your toe for you. Jump in where you can and hang on.

Sheryl Crow trades in her paper-thin vocals to add rich, mournful accordion to "Mary Of The Wild Moor," as well as "Wayfaring Stranger," while nice fiddle work adds sorrow to the tragedy of both ballads. No matter how earnestly Johnny lays down the classic Irish story, poor Mary is still dead at the end. Itís surprising that he hasnít put out these classics before now. Obviously both have been in his repertoire for decades. Old friend Merle Haggard has a great time with his buddy on "Iím Leaving Now." They banter with the naturalness of an Upstart Pipsqueak exchange. Merle actually sings pretty and plays perfectly. All the guests here do some of their finest work without outshining Johnny.

No drums were beaten during the recording of this album, and all guitars are acoustic, true to folk style. Johnnyís son-in-law Marty Stuart plays some of the guitars, but the liner notes never give credit where it is due. The uninitiated to Johnny Cash (if there is such a thing) should start with some of his earlier works. For those of us accustomed to his range and roots, this is like listening to your grandpa. He exhibits an endearing frailty that adds to some of the sorrow expressed in the songs. And as Cybil Shephard requires cheesecloth draped over the camera lens, I urge Rick Rubin to use effects on Johnnyís vocals. A small reverb to wet the cracks in an otherwise masterful throat. Beyond this overlookable complaint, Solitary Man is an incredible piece of history. One that will be played in regular rotation in my household until it drives someone batty. So, to my own June Carter I urge you, understand your man.

-Ewan Wadharmi

Track Listing:

  1. I Wonít Back Down
  2. Solitary Man
  3. That Lucky Old Sun
  4. One
  5. Nobody
  6. I See A Darkness
  7. Mercy Seat
  8. Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)
  9. Field Of Diamonds
  10. Before My Time
  11. Country Trash
  12. Mary Of The Wild Moor
  13. Iím Leaving Now
  14. Wayfaring Stranger

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