The Man in Black at 70 with ‘American IV’ hits

By on January 30, 2003

An obscure unplugged record is not a bad start for one of the granddaddies of the original 1950’s Nashville lineup, when the inception of country meeting a new advent called rock ‘n roll put the country in a stir.

The original Man in Black is still recording, thankfully and well-deserved that he still has his vocal chops. Considering Johnny Cash had only reissues, a seldom autobiography and few original records in the past decade, his November 2002 release of “American IV: The Man Comes Around” is a pleasant comeback to vintage Cash.

The November 2002 release on Lost Highway/ American Recordings culls a swaying somber 15 ballad cuts of classic Cash mixed with several notable cover songs.

“American IV” was produced with Rick Rubin, who has worked on Cash’s last studio efforts, including two compilation records and 2000’s “American III: Solitary Man,” and has also worked with System of a Down, Sheryl Crow, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys and Run-DMC.

Cash was the youngest inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and until Elvis Presley’s induction into both the Country and Rock Hall of Fame in 1998, the sole chairman linking both genres of America’s rebellious music.

Now with just shy of an amazing 50 records still in print, Cash is of a few vintage artists still in the recording gamut and still physically maintaining a long-abiding country voice on his new record. Not bad for a man who appears as a legitimate father to Bob Dylan and a generation or two of folk singers.

“The Man Comes Around” is the seventy-year-old’s first track and the record’s namesake. With a spoken word start and finish surrounded by a genuine twinge of Americana folk and country shuffled patronage, Cash begins in full Tennessee glory.

“Give My Love to Rose” is another of Cash’s new tracks, in ballad tempo as a sanctimonious ditty to his wife and family of the pre-Hippie era. Other than these two rendering lead tracks, the only other few Cash composed songs on “American IV” are “Tear Stained Letter,” “Streets of Laredo” and “Sam Hall.”

Like 1996’s “Unchained” and 2000’s “American III,” which featured far-fetched covers such as Louis Armstrong’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” U2’s “One” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” “American IV” is laced with heartier covers than before.

Leading off is none other than a staple to 1990’s alternative-rock radio, compliments of Nine Inch Nails’ dark addictive “Hurt,” from 1994’s “Downward Spiral.” Cash means well, substituting the few subtle curse words with Biblical references. Nonetheless, he strikes home, with an eerily somber quivering voice in pensive post-Sept. 11 reflection over the repetitive minor riff of session guitarists Smokey Hormel, Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench.

More uplifting in song is a duet with Fiona Apple on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” So far one of a few Grammy nods on “American IV,” the emotion packed in the ballad’s sway is comparable to any latter folkie’s routine, including bar-tuned Wilco, Beck and Mr. E of The Eels, among others. Fiona Apple’s voice enters in a soulful rasp, patched complimentary alongside the weary veteran’s baritone voice.

Also rambling and rugged are renditions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with guest crooner Nick Cave, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” with Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante, The Eagles’ “Desperado” with Don Henley and, to top off the heap, The Beatles’ “In My Life.”

For all of us nowhere near the age of The Man in Black, “American IV” is perfectly accessible. It is designed for any with a softness for folk, country and early rock music, much like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams have spurred a vast following by current singer-songwriters in these mingling genres. The ensemble of guests and expansive covers of many genres is enough, but Cash’s still-intact chops makes every track a gem.


About Mike Schoeck