Cash’s ‘Personal Files’ are historic public documentWritten by Johnny M. Mickler Sr. | | firstname.lastname@example.org
There are three significant factors in the continuing decline of American popular music: an emphasis on rhythm that all but eclipses melody; a preoccupation with first-person narratives that renders storytelling near-obsolete; and a producer-driven industry that does not accommodate strong, personal artistic vision.
The case for this argument can be effectively won with the new Columbia Legacy release ”Johnny Cash: Personal File,” a two-disc set of 49 solo performances Cash taped, mostly in the early 1970s. Cash must have been amused by the 1990’s boom of ”Unplugged” and ”Storyteller” records, because in 1973, he put dozens of solo acoustic performances on tape at the House of Cash estate in Hendersonville, Tenn. The songs were childhood favorites, records by his contemporaries and odds and ends he wrote, but never released.
Cash’s personality and legend threaten to outpace his actual music, especially after 16 months of exposure to ”Walk the Line.” ”Personal File” is a precursor to the late 1990s Rick Rubin-produced albums that closed Cash’s output, but as they capture him in all the simultaneous swagger and humility of his prime, these songs achieve a liquid sound of strummed guitar and bass vocal that echo for days.
Disc One contains secular treasures thematically linked through stories of family, exploration and gentle love. The first few songs weave from ”The Letter Edged in Black” to ”The Engineer’s Dying Child” to ”My Mother Was a Lady” with intensity and confidence; Cash often opens a song with a personal recollection or story that makes it clear he knows exactly where he is going with each track. His subtle guitar playing reveals an unexpected depth to his musicianship, when contrasted to the chugging rock pace of ”Cocaine Blues” and other rave-ups.
The collection hits its glorious stride in the middle of Disc One, with a stretch of famous country and folk songs Cash covers and subsequently owns. His readings of Doug Kershaw’s ”Louisiana Man,” John Prine’s ”Paradise,” Lefty Frizzell’s ”Saginaw, Michigan” and Johnny Horton’s ”When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” are monuments of American songwriting given new life through Cash’s timeless vocals. Other Disc One highlights include a 5-minute recitation of the macabre poem ”The Cremation of Sam McGee” that makes one wish Cash had recorded a disc of poems by Edgar Alan Poe, and ”Tiger Whitehead,” a song inspired by the tombstones of a bear hunter and his wife.
The poignant ”It Takes One to Know Me,” written by Carlene Carter, offers more insight into the love Cash shared with June Carter than two DVDs of Hollywood’s best effort with ”Walk the Line.”
Disc Two consists of the spirituals and gospel music that infused Cash throughout his life, a dimension largely ignored in ”Walk the Line.”
”If Jesus Ever Loved a Woman,” ”Have a Drink of Water,” ”Sanctified” and ”A Half a Mile a Day,” songs buried in Cash’s studio for three decades, would be highlights of any other American recording artist’s career. Cash believes, and his gentle way with these songs is insistent, never preachy. As a testament to the power of faith, Disc Two is as valuable as 1,000 Bibles.
”Johnny Cash: Personal File” is the greatest collection of American music since the ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, an invaluable experience for anyone interested in America and its music. The collection will be available May 23.