Traversing Time and the Human Condition with Johnny Cash’s American Recordings

Robbie Fulks explores the classic album on its 25th anniversary.

“Delia’s Gone,” the murder ballad that opens 1994’s American Recordings, Johnny Cash’s 81st LP, recalls “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues,” and other first-person tales of full-throated outlawry that stud his discography. “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” is the standout line from “Folsom.” “Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died,” its more trochaic analogue in “Delia,” is a notch upward in brutality and imagination. “Folsom” is a Cash original and “Delia” a heavy redraft of a semi-standard; both songs go a good distance in explaining Cash’s unique magnetism. Language that’s plain yet artful, balancing remorselessness and wit; stories rich with florid detail and moral implication; the self’s struggle with the dominance of memory and the limits of comprehension: Now we’re no longer looking at an antique curio but instead are face-to-face with the special predicament of our species, that which stands above all others in its capacity to destroy, to suffer, and to create the beautiful code that is art.

“Delia” has appeared in countless forms since Blind Willie McTell’s 1922 recording (and since, 22 years before that, the teenage girl who inspired the song was killed in Savannah, Georgia). Cash’s first go at it was in 1962, on a record called The Sound of Johnny Cash. Even by then, his image as a ministerial spokesman for violent and self-harming outcasts was well established, as was his sound. Don Law’s production of the first “Delia” respects and smooths out what Sam Phillips roughly forged at Sun Records; Law foregrounds Luther Perkins’ stern guitar, offsetting it with Buddy Harman’s soft-swinging tambourine and a crooning vocal section.

The 1994 “Delia” has no softness. It starts cold, without side players or preamble. With four rubato guitar chords, we’re walled within a harsh and oddly delimited landscape that varies hardly at all through the album. The 1962 lyric allowed in a few details from the world outside the narrator’s numbed thoughts — an extraneous brother in Memphis, the crack of a hammer on a rockpile—but the update imprisons us in his head. A newly written second verse has him tying the girl to a chair. The next has him brandishing a submachine gun, humorously pronounced “sub-mo-sheen.” Then the main event begins: “The first time I shot her, I shot her in the side…” The side! As in “of beef.” I can’t think of another song where one character does something to another “in the side.” Making sure no one is left without offense, the closing verse offers a breezy tip for the uxoricidally curious: “If your woman’s devilish… you can bring her down and do her like Delia got done.”

Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is sometimes cited and praised for its stripped-down-ness. This record is stripped farther. The producer is Rick Rubin, then 31 years old and with a production résumé that included metal acts like Danzig and Slayer, punk-leaning rock like Jesus and Mary Chain, the comedian Andrew Dice Clay, and a wide array of first-generation rap artists. No one could have predicted exactly what a Rubin country production might sound like. With hindsight it’s easy to say “minimalistic and unaffected,” but I do remember the absence of any electronic softening or added instrumentation knocking me a little sideways at first listen. Artistically it’s fitting, obvious even, yet no one but Rubin thought (or had the nerve, or the clout) to do it. It seemed then that this was one of those rare records that would stay fresh over the years — and here we are.

Art that comes to us clad this humbly raises questions. Performing and recording with minimal tools, in order to put a maximal focus on teller and stories, seems a laudable goal as well as, frankly, an easy job. No group of technicians and subordinate artists with delicate psychologies to massage? No arranging, no mixing? Less expense all around? Count me in! So — why is this course so rarely taken? What hidden processes led to these results that are at once so spare and deep? Were there complexities on the path to the ultimate honing? Are there artifices and trickery that we might want to know about — is the music only apparently simple, should we trust our ears?

One reason we don’t hear more music like this is that it has no place in any of our commercial categories. In-studio craftsmanship and orchestration specifics are two markers that tell listeners what they’re hearing and marketers how to focus their work. There is no existing (much less salable) genre that comfortably accommodates lone singers delivering grim narratives, and recordings without effects, filters, and within-song editing are, likewise, presumptively sales-averse. American Recordings is a modern-day field recording — easy to say, but say it to your next-door neighbor and see a light bulb not go on over his head. The album is of course deeply country — its songcraft, emotional pull, and historical attunement lift it into the highest realms of achievement in that field — yet deeply other, for it sounds like almost no country music that’s been recorded. It lacks, for starters, ensemble performing, danceability, broad humor, snazzy solos, and happy endings. In its abjuration of vocal reverb it stands apart from most records made since 1953. It lacks, too, a clear sense that the artist is working to attract the listener’s identification and sympathy — to present as likeable. The first time I shot her, I shot her in the side.

I wanted to know more about the sessions, but only two people were there. Johnny’s dead, and Rick Rubin isn’t on my Rolodex. But Allmusic and Wikipedia list an engineer credit for my friend Dave Ferguson. I called Fergie, who was also a good friend of Johnny’s, to find out exactly what he did, and whether he could throw some light on the album now turning 25. The American Recordings series — there are six in all — comprises so many sessions, mixes, cities, personnel, and multiple takes on various titles that it’s hard to determine who did what, and when. It turned out even Fergie wasn’t altogether sure. Though he was the main engineer from the third record (Unchained) through the sixth and final record in the series, his initial attachment to the project was contingent and uncertain.

“The way it started was, Rick flew Johnny out to LA, to see if there were some songs he wanted to do. Johnny picked out some songs he wanted to do in advance, and Rick set up a recorder in his house — DAT or ADAT, I think. He used a single mic for both guitar and vocal. After they listened back to the music, they decided they’d go ahead and make a record together.”

“Well, they tried recording with several bands. They tried The Red Devils, which was Smokey Hormel’s band. They tried others. Then Rick came to Nashville, and asked me to record Johnny at his cabin. At the time, it really was a cabin — this was before it was turned into a studio — so I brought in an ADAT machine, a limiter, a little Mackie board, and some good mics. We re-recorded the same songs he had done at Rick’s house, plus some other titles.”

“After time went by, I got in the mail a CD of the finished record. It was a surprise to me — no echo, just Johnny and his guitar. It sounded to me like for every track, except the two live ones, they went back to the original demo sessions at Rick’s house. Although I had some doubts about ‘Drive On’ — that one sounded to me to have a slightly bigger room sound, and I thought maybe that was taken from the cabin sessions. But a lot later on, I sat down and listened thoroughly to every track that was recorded for the whole series, and I realized at that point that they hadn’t used anything from the cabin.”

This story recalls my recent piece on Shania Twain, in which recordings of great distinction issued, slo-o-o-w-ly, from a flexible budget, painstaking trial-and-error, and a producer with the strength of mind to override the investment fallacy and return to first efforts when need be. It’s unfortunate the word “demo” exists, because it creates a confusion, a taxonomical red herring. An unaccompanied performance in a room that’s not a studio: why do we care about any word in that clause except “performance”? Cash’s intense delivery at Rubin’s house was a non-replicable event, including occasional mic whoofs, and an imperfectly tuned string or two. Thankfully, the two men ultimately realized they had already made the record they were trying to make.

If they hadn’t, we’d have missed out on one of the release’s sneaky pleasures: the sound of Cash’s thumb on guitar strings. Fergie thinks the instrument was a black Martin D28 that Cash’s band had built for him, adorned with Gene Autry’s autograph. Cash loved the guitar, and played it with a flatpick only when he was fronting a group and needed the power lift. The impact of flesh on steel rather than plastic is, admittedly, a small touch; but all human touches are welcome. Johnny has ideas in his playing that are beautifully non-standard, like inverting root and fifth on “Let The Train Blow The Whistle,” or reducing Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me” to a bassline, heightening a scary-monster story by making a skeleton of it.  

Accounting for the intensity of performance, Fergie observes, “Johnny was selling himself to Rick.” If so, Cash is a Zen master salesman on American Recordings, consistently choosing understatement in both guitar and voice, allowing the stories to speak and us to insert our own emotions, and declining to mask his limitations. This extends the overall theme: less.

“Drive On” stands alongside titles like “Big River,” “Hey Porter,” and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” as one of Cash’s most on-point and deeply skilled compositions. All you need is a lyric sheet on “Big River” to know that Cash’s feeling for clever blues-bromide revisions (“I taught the weeping willow how to cry”), prosaic detail (“I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota”), and rhyme (“I heard my dream went back downstream”) is second-to-none among songwriters. Decades did not dim this gift. The emotional drama of the Vietnam coming-home narrative that drives “Drive On” may make phrasal analysis seem a bit irrelevant or cold-hearted, but consider the sheer proficiency behind the blend of assonance and meaning in:

Even now, every time I dream
I hear the men and the monkeys in the jungle scream

Or the slangy touches that cement the singer’s authority:

We had our 16’s on rock & roll

Or the stabbing oxymoron embedded in the plain words that close the couplet:

And with all that fire, I was scared and cold

Or the stanza that circles, in the manner of antimetabole, from simple to creatively dense diction and back again to simple, with flawless meter: four lines that speak for nine million minus 50,000 Americans, in words no one before had arranged thus:

I was crazy, and I was wild
And I have seen the tiger smile
I spit in a bamboo viper’s face
And I’d be dead but by God’s grace

Kipling would have been happy with that — if he could have managed it as concisely.

The Christian-themed “Redemption” is another song on which Cash shines as wordsmith. While I hesitate to get into the bad graces of such Cash devotees as the YouTube commenter 2coool Foskool (“Let’s kick the 7 poor Assholes who didn’t like this”), I should confess that the power-of-the-blood doctrine is not one that appeals to me, either theologically or poetically. The Christian preoccupation with suffering and gore is too synonymous with fetish and compulsion, in my view, to respond to as prettily clothed symbolism. Nonetheless, the mesmeric, or perhaps mesmerized, repetitions in the crucifixion imagery of “Redemption” (“From his hands it came down/From his side it came down”—that side again) do affectingly convey a sort of stupefied awe in the presence of divine anguish; and the humble epiphany that shows up late in the song (“And a small inner voice / Said ‘you do have a choice’”) is the kind of just-right touch that makes me more admiring of religious artists than of their object of adoration.

American Recordings isn’t really a lone wolf, conceptually. Besides Springsteen, artists all over the late-20th-century popular-music landscape — Richard Thompson, Alex Chilton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Ted Hawkins, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Newman — have released unaccompanied (or nearly so) albums that strive toward a minimalistic song-focus. The 2003 Willie Nelson collection Crazy: The Demo Sessions is an equally vivid snapshot of a lone male country artist perched on a peak. And in the years since American Recordings appeared, splashy collaborations between country veterans and hipster (if another word is available, please write to me — I loathe it as much as you do) producers have become routine: Loretta Lynn and Jack White, Glen Campbell and Rubin, everyone over 60 and T Bone Burnett.

It’s an open question which kind of person is in shorter supply, the artist of Cash-grade power or the Rubin-esque facilitator who holds the key to unlock it. The trust Johnny reposed in Rick, and the self-selling, invite us to view them as men of like size. “Johnny was great at putting his trust into producers,” Fergie told me. “From Sam Phillips to Bob Johnston to Jack Clement, he gave them the best parts of himself.” But by his early 60s, his best was wearing thin. “In the time just before American Recordings, he was doing a stint in Branson. It really bummed him out. He had a lot of people on his coattail, in his band. He was carrying the whole thing. He was ready for a change. And Rick repackaged him.”

If “repackaged” sounds cynical, remember that performing is separate from being, no matter how naturalistic and authentic-seeming the performance; only by compartmentalizing the performing and the natural selves can someone have a career in the arts as long as Cash’s was. Fergie elaborates: “It’s impossible to explain his personality to people. Those recordings — you’re getting an act. You’re not getting his facial gestures, his sense of humor. He was a great dude.”

Which of today’s country hitmakers might in 20 or 30 years sit down alone before a single microphone and dramatize the souls of murderers, soldiers, alcoholics, wanderers, and Christian penitents in order to please a thickly bearded oddball? To ask it is to answer it. No one wishes Luke Bryan, poor fellow, had picked cotton in Arkansas during a worldwide depression. But it is hard not to see the path from those terrible times to the age of fun-loving, lavishly appointed country as a great downward slide, a collapse in the willingness of Americans to face (much less smile at, or tap a foot to) our own frailties as reflected back at us in music.

At the top of this essay I mentioned, at high risk of sounding pretentious, the predicament of homo sapiens. The predicament I mean is hard to appreciate when you’re immersed in daily anxieties and online chatter, but it may come clear now and then with the aid of environmental cues, silence, and art that is purposeful and knows what it’s doing. The characters in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town struggle to wrest meaning from the cycle of growing, pairing off, and dying in which they’re trapped. So do the characters in country songs. So do the people that sing the songs — characters themselves. Standing in the Presley family’s Tupelo house, or listening at close quarters to George Jones sing or to Lloyd Green play the pedal steel, I’ve felt myself to have entered a hushed hollow, where the privations, hopeless ideals, and refusals-to-die of every doomed individual are musicalized, and possibly — who knows? but the feeling persists  — eternalized.

It’s always better to listen to the music than to make a fuss trying to articulate, with at best partial success, its perceived essence. But since this is writing and since both you and I are articulate, let me frame the essential message of tragic old country music this way: We are feeble oarsmen who find ourselves in the same large leaky boat drifting farther from shore. The message, though bleak, carries a consoling spirit of unity. To experience the hush, the bleakness, and the consolation first-hand, tickets to Tupelo are widely available — but American Recordings costs a lot less.

Robbie Fulks is a musician — country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics — living in Los Angeles. His latest record is Bluegrass Vacation. His 2017 release, Upland Stories, was a multiple Grammy nominee. His website is here.