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.