Creating a single playlist of the American Recordings series is not hard; you just drag all six individual albums and the Unearthed box set and hit "play". Distilling that to a single 74-minute CD, however, requires a lot of agonizing.
In my original version of this playlist, I included "Worried Man" (performed with Willie Nelson) from VH1 Storytellers. It's not an official "American Recordings" album of Cash's, but it was produced by the label and its aesthetics are certainly congruous with the rest of the Cash/Rubin albums. However, when they prepared that TV special for its CD release, they decided that the between-song banter should come after the preceding song on the same disc track. Consequently, the performance of "Worried Man" is followed by nearly two minutes of Cash and Nelson bantering about the latter's "Family Bible". I did create an edit of just the "Worried Man" performance for my own disc, but as I wanted to share this playlist on Spotify I realized that it was best to just omit representing the VH1 disc entirely.
Disclosure: All song and album title links go to Amazon using my personal Amazon Associates ID, meaning if you buy something through these links, I am compensated.
"The Man Comes Around"
(John R. Cash) from American IV: The Man Comes Around
Opening with this track was an easy choice, just because of that scratchy recorded narration at the beginning. It's the kind of gimmick that's really only effective in the lead-off position. Anywhere else, and the transition to the performance isn't as startling. "The Man Comes Around" isn't just here because of that, though. It's one of the strongest songs to come from Cash's own pen of the entire American era. The whole thing originated in a dream he had, which he subsequently identified as being from the Book of Revelation. This vivid depiction of the Rapture and Judgment Day is a perfect microcosm of Cash's entire discography.
This wasn't actually a song I included in my first version of this playlist, but then a few days ago I had it stuck in my head and the only way to deal with it was to play it...several times. It's a very well written rumination on rejection, and I love to hear Cash's undulating voice: "sheeeee dooon't wanna be my friend no more."
"Sea of Heartbreak"
with Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood
(Paul Hampton/Hal David) from Unchained
I'm familiar with several versions of this recording, and I love each of them. This version by Cash features Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac and its tempo is just a bit faster than other versions I know. The upshot is that this feels more like a party song than an actual reflection on love gone bad. It's a bit peculiar at first, but it works quite well. And yes, I did pair this with "Rowboat" for the obvious reason. I was reluctant to do that because they appear together in this same sequence to open the Unchained album, but it works so well that I decided to just leave 'em here.
(Neil Diamond) from American III: Solitary Man
The guitar work alone would have earned this recording a spot on this playlist, but the display of resolve and insistence on holding out for someone deserving really resonates with me at this point in my life. I joke about my desperation, but the truth is that I really do prefer to be alone rather than throw myself into something just for the sake of avoiding loneliness. I think this works nicely as a follow-up to the "Rowboat"/"Sea of Heartbreak" duo even though it lacks the nautical motif. Cash won a Grammy for this recording.
(John R. Cash) from American Recordings
Continuing the "man alone" theme, but this time in a different light. "Drive On" is a story song from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, reflecting on his experience at war and also at having come back home. This was recorded in 1994, at a time when war had largely become something for historians and movie-makers rather than a daily life matter for the average American. It was well past time that we re-addressed our treatment of veterans, and "Drive On" is a perfect reminder that Cash always had his eye on marginalized members of our society. It's an even more poignant song now, a decade after our operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least this time, we've managed to remember to separate our disdain for the wars from the brave men and women fighting them.
"The Mercy Seat"
(Mick Harvey/Nick Cave) from American III: Solitary Man
One of the gems in my music library is a CD sent to radio programmers of Tim Robbins interviewing Cash in promotion of the American III album. They discuss each track, and there Cash remarked that he picked this song because he had been outraged at how many executions had taken place in Texas under Governor George W. Bush. American III was released in 2000, just as Bush was running for the presidency. Here again we have Cash as a social activist. Ever since he passed away in 2003, countless artists particularly in country music have claimed him as a "major influence," but what exposes them as name-checking wannabes is that none of them have displayed his social conscience. Can one imagine a mainstream country song railing against the death penalty?
with Nick Cave
(Traditional) from Unearthed Volume Three: Redemption Songs
Being that Cave co-wrote "The Mercy Seat," I liked the idea of their duet coming here in the playlist. Plus, it felt like an appropriate time after five fairly heavy songs for a bit of levity. In the liner notes to the Unearthed box set, it was shared that Cave and Cash each knew different verses to this traditional song and their final recording represents an amalgamation of the song as they each knew it. That back story is a perfect illustration of the theme of the universality of music that runs throughout the American Recordings series, and why it's on this playlist. It also segues us into the "women trilogy"...
"Give My Love to Rose"
(John R. Cash) from American IV: The Man Comes Around
The second of the "women trilogy" here is a re-recording of one of Cash's own songs. Here, the narrator recounts coming upon the scene of an accident and finding there a guy who had just been released from prison as he lay dying. Though the song never actually discusses the topic of forgiveness, it's dominated by the concept. There's the fact that the dying man had been in prison - we don't know why. We do know, however, that he had been released, signifying that his debt to society had been paid. We feel bad that he's made it through his sentence only to die before being reunited with his wife and child, and we feel for them as well. Here again, Cash humanizes the marginalized.
(Karl Silbersdorf, Dick Toops; arranged by Johnny Cash) from American Recordings
Of course, Cash also recorded some pretty dark songs exploring the inhumanity of man. He had recorded this murder ballad decades earlier, with some different lyrics. This version is the opening track on the first of the American albums, also released as a single. A music video featuring Kate Moss as the titular victim used to play late at night on CMT during their segment dedicated to alt.country. I remember seeing it and finding it surprising, even somewhat shocking...and wishing they'd play it during normal broadcast hours.
"Devil's Right Hand"
(Steve Earle) from Unearthed Volume Two: Trouble in Mind
I love this song. I included Waylon Jennings's recording of it in my Waylon in the 90s playlist, and I was just as compelled to include Cash's version here. What's striking here is that this isn't just a cautionary song, but one that directly confronts the controversial issue of gun control. Steve Earle's song never says that guns should be banned, but he makes it very clear that they're nothing but trouble. "I soon found out/they can get you into trouble but they can't get you out." Earle could write and record such a song, and Waylon and Cash would each cover it individually and together with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson on their third and final Highwayman album, The Road Goes On Forever, but again it's worth asking: who of all those artists who were allegedly so strongly "influenced" by Cash would touch such a song?
(Jack Rhodes/Red Hayes) from American VI: Ain't No Grave
I first heard this song on a Marty Stuart album, Country Music. Cash's recording featured in the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill Vol. 2 (it's the song coming from the record player in Daryl Hannah's trailer). It's as scornful of the love of money as "Devil's Right Hand" is of gun ownership. It's much easier to find country artists and conservatives who embrace this song, though.
"God's Gonna Cut You Down"
(Traditional) from American V: A Hundred Highways
I vividly recall being at a New Year's Eve party, and a friend of mine streamed the music video for this on our host's computer. I was not particularly sober, but the persistent clapping and the ominous sound of Cash's then-deceased voice was so chilling that it's the only thing I actually remember from that entire night. It felt cheapened to me when it began to appear in commercials for TV shows and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but I have to admit that it really made the teaser trailer for the Coen Brothers's remake of True Grit pretty sweet.
"The Fourth Man in the Fire"
(Arthur Smith) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry
Christianity was one of the most dominant themes in the Cash discography, but what I like about "The Fourth Man in the Fire" most is that he sounds like he's having fun singing it. Plus, I find the biblical story recounted here interesting. It's a captivating tale, and even if you don't believe in it there's little arguing that it makes for a very vivid and exciting story.
"Why Me Lord?"
(Kris Kristofferson) from American Recordings
This is easily one of my favorite songs about faith, and it pretty much had to have been written by Kristofferson. Who else could so deftly conflate the sardonic with the reverent? The hook is brilliant, and Cash's reading of the song is so sincere that even when I've become cynical and frustrated with faith, I find it moving to hear this recording.
(Jeff Lynne/Tom Petty) from American III: Solitary Man
Tom Petty's original recording was initially used by George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, but Petty had his lawyers issue a cease and desist letter because he objected to Bush's politics. That was (as far as I know) incidental to its inclusion on the same album in which Cash covered "The Mercy Seat." Rather, here Cash had tapped into the theme of defiance in the context of his mounting health problems following a particularly rough bout with pneumonia that nearly killed him.
(Gordon Jenkins/John R. Cash) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry
One of the basic, dominant themes of Cash's American Recordings is death and this may be the best microcosm. After all, here he sings in first person as the caretaker of a cemetery morosely wondering, "Who's gonna cry when old John dies?" It almost seems inappropriate to hear this recording now that Cash has passed away, but what I've discerned of his values and personality through his music and interviews tells me that on some level, he would find this song amusing now.
"When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder"
(Traditional; arranged by Johnny Cash) from My Mother's Hymn Book
Confession: the major reason this made the final cut was that it was short enough to fit into the remaining time. Still, I like to think it's a comforting reassurance coming right after "The Caretaker" to know that "ol' John" knew where he was headed even if he wasn't as sure who might cry when he left.
(Trent Reznor) from American IV: The Man Comes Around
There's nothing really left to even say about this recording that hasn't been said ad infinitum since it and its powerful music video were released nine years ago. I'll simply note that I placed it here because even though the sound is entirely different from "I Won't Back Down," it's very much a companion piece in theme.
"I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now"
(Louis Herscher/Saul Klein) from American V: A Hundred Highways
After the weight of "Hurt," I liked moving directly into this recording. It's actually about an inmate who dies, finding his release from the chain gang that way but there's something about the peaceful way in which Cash sings the song that I find it reassuring somehow.
(Composer/Writer Unknown) from American VI: Ain't No Grave
Lest we think too much about the death discussed in "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now" and become saddened, Cash reassures us here that there "Ain't no grave gonna hold me down." The song is about the belief in the afterlife, but it also works as an allegory about the legacy of Cash's recordings carrying on his messages though he now sleepeth.
"Flesh and Blood"
(John R. Cash) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry
I liked following the song about Native Americans with this celebration of nature and love. I don't quite know why, but somehow this song became my official song for autumn. Every year whenever I see the leaves turn golden and the air becomes brisk, I hear this song playing in my head. It's comforting and warm, and makes me smile.
(Neil Young) from Unearthed Volume Two: Trouble in Mind
This is pretty much a social consciousness fever dream, commenting on the treatment of Native Americans. For those who wonder what Marlon Brando has to do with this, he brought a lot of attention to the topic at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. He won the Best Actor award for The Godfather, but instead of accepting it, he sent to the stage Sacheen Littlefeather - dressed in full Apache attire - to use his screen time on live TV to announce that he would not accept the award in light of the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry (and, by proxy, American society at large). Native Americans were another marginalized segment of American society championed over the years by Cash.
"Chattanooga Sugar Babe"
(Norman Blake) from Unearthed Volume Three: Redemption Songs
This isn't quite as surreal as "Pocahontas", but it's still kind of an odd song. It's light and breezy, though, and while there were more substantive songs probably more worthy of inclusion, I felt this specific recording added an important balance to the personality of the playlist.
(Geoff Mack) from Unchained
Like "God's Gonna Cut You Down", "I've Been Everywhere" has featured prominently in TV commercials the last several years. This one seems more commercial-friendly, though, being that it's a love letter to the open road. It's sheer fun from start to finish. I don't even try to sing along with this one. I just kick back and try to keep up with Cash...and I fail every time.
"I'll Fly Away"
(Albert E. Brumley) from My Mother's Hymn Book
Cash called My Mother's Hymn Book his favorite album that he ever made, enjoying so much that he finally recorded the songs of faith he learned from his mother. It was originally the fourth disc of the Unearthed box set, then later given a standalone release. "I'll Fly Away" in particular seems a perfect song for the Cash discography: writer Alfred Brumley got the idea while picking cotton, humming a secular song about an inmate contemplating escape. Brumley carried out the idea to the context of escaping life for the glory of the afterlife. How could Johnny Cash possibly resist a song with that pedigree?
"Like the 309"
(John R. Cash) from American V: A Hundred Highways
"Like the 309" was the final song written by Johnny Cash. Thematically, it's clearly a descendant of "I'll Fly Away" only here Cash taps into the imagery of trains (another favorite subject of his). He's contemplating death, certainly, but it's not fear or dread behind "Like the 309." Rather, he's imagining his own farewell tour of sorts. It's this song perhaps more than anything else that convinced me that Cash would find "The Caretaker" amusing now that he's gone.
(Queen Lili'uokalani) from American VI: Ain't No Grave
About a third of the songs in this playlist would have made for a perfect conclusion, and there were several others that didn't make the final cut (including "We'll Meet Again"). "Aloha Oe" won out because it exemplifies best that overarching theme of the universality of music. Who else but Johnny Cash would think to record a song penned by a Hawaiian queen in the 19th century inspired by a farewell embrace given at the end of a hunting trip?
I'll leave you with this EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for American V featuring Rick Rubin: