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American III: Solitary Man
Johnny Cash
American III: Solitary Man
American Recordings

(CD)

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Johnny Cash is without question the baddest motherfucker ever to walk the face of the Earth. He is the mysterious man in black -- a dark, imposing figure and a guy you definitely wouldn’t want to fuck with. As it happens, he's also the consummate country singer/songwriter and a bona fide living legend. As its title suggests, American III: Solitary Man is Cash’s third release for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings imprint, and it follows closely in the footsteps of his two previous American releases -- the critically acclaimed (not to mention Grammy award-winning) American Recordings and Unchained.

True to form, American III is pure Cash through and through, from the unorthodox cover material and collaborators down to the grainy black and white photographs used in the album artwork. The album begins with a brooding cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”, which couples Cash’s swelling baritone and sparse acoustic guitar work with elegiac organ drones and backing vocals provided by Petty himself. A sullen reading of the album’s adopted title track, Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man”, is next, with Petty once again providing assistance. It certainly says something about the character and talent of Johnny Cash that he can make a Neil Diamond song sound unequivocally cool. Cash-ified versions of songs by Will Oldham (“I See a Darkness”), U2 (“One”) and Nick Cave (“The Mercy Seat”) follow...and again, he makes them cool. Yes, even the U2 song.

Though the covers on American III will attract the majority of listener attention, Cash’s own material steals the show. “Country Trash” and “Before My Time” are absolutely stunning, utilizing terse lyrical content, stellar musicianship and Cash’s unnerving presence to get their point across. “I’m Leavin’ Now” is a brazen, honky-tonk flavored duet with old friend and musical accomplice Merle Haggard. The album ends on a high with a delicate reading of “Wayfaring Stranger,” which finds Cash in extremely fine voice, expounding on his spirituality and life. It’s so very beautiful that it just might take your breath away.

Solitary Man finds Cash stronger than ever, musically and spiritually. Rarely is an album so thoroughly imbued with an artist's defiantly original spirit. Hearing Cash's gruff proclamation that “I won’t back down, gonna stand my ground” makes clear that you'd damn well better listen to what he has to say...or else.

-- Jason Jackowiak

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