Best Albums of the 00s: Solitary Man

American III - Solitary Man - Johnny Cash (2000)

Each week from now until the end of the year I’m going to take a chronological look at my twelve favourite albums of the noughties. These are the albums I liked most from that decade and the ones I played most often throughout the last ten years. First up is Johnny Cash’s American III: Solitary Man from 2000. Cash was primarily known as a country singer and I heard a lot of country music on the radio when I was growing up. Unfortunately, it was an Irish version called country and western that featured Irish lads and lasses wearing cowboy outfits and attempting to mimic American accents and themes as they sang either their own songs or their inferior versions of classic American country music. I could have been put off music for life if it hadn’t been for the occasional Johnny Cash tune that appeared now and then on that radio station named Tipperary Mid West Radio. It wasn’t too hard for the Man in Black to stand out because his songs were superior in quality and seemed more authentic than those of a chancer who claimed that it was he who shot JR Ewing

One of the first tapes I remember buying was a compilation of Johnny’s most popular songs with the rather catchy title of Itchy Feet: 20 Foot-Tappin’ Greats. I also got into the two prison albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. He seemed to have had a quiet time of it musically after the mid-70s and I doubt if I heard much of the stuff he released after that time. I came across the first two albums he recorded with Rick Rubin while browsing in the music section of the local library when I studied in the US. American Recordings (1994) and Unchained (1996) had been critical successes and had re-established his reputation following a less productive period in the preceding decade. For each album, Rubin suggested songs by contemporary performers that suited Cash’s voice and persona. Some of the most effective interpretations on the first two albums included his versions of Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me, Tom Petty’s Southern Accents and Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage. Additionally, Cash also included his own songs as well as some of his own favourites. Cash summed up the process of how songs were picked in an interview with Anthony DeCurtis that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Cash told Rubin: “I’m gonna sing you a song and if you don’t like it, you tell me. And if you got a song that you like and I don’t, you’ve got to listen to me”. This bargain paid dividends as the choices of both Rubin and Cash worked well within the context of the overall records

For their third album together, Cash and Rubin had deliberately chosen songs that featured lyrics dealing with Cash’s own mortality (he would die in September, 2003). Between the release of Unchained and the recording of its follow-up Cash suffered a number of setbacks that affected his health. First, he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called autonomic neuropathy. Then, he was hospitalised on a number of occasions for pneumonia. This damaged his lungs and affected his voice. His illness mean he couldn’t put in a lot of time in the studio and he and Rubin only recorded when Cash felt comfortable. They put down the vocals and basic tracks in a studio that Cash had built in a log cabin at his home in Tennessee and completed the album in California. When the album was released that October, it got a lukewarm reception from Ben Ratliff in Rolling Stone magazine. His review begins: “Even the best good ideas can get pushed too far, and for Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man is one Rick Rubin-built cover album over the line”. He goes on to criticize the record for being under-produced, apart from the version of Nick Cave’s Mercy Seat. Certainly, Cash’s voice is weaker and the instrumentation is sparse, but it is these qualities that I like most about the album

The frailty of his voice is apparent in the album’s opening track, his version of Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. Both the lyrics and his delivery of them are defiant, but there is also a vulnerability to his voice that is just as powerful. Cash’s version of the song is far more convincing than Petty’s Jeff Lynne-produced original because his aging voice is more convincing than Petty’s disaffected drawl. Petty joins Cash on vocals on his own song as well as Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man, a song for which Cash won a Grammy award for Best Male Vocal Performance. I first heard Johnny’s take on this song when a friend of mine (who’s also a huge music fan) handed me his discman in the college canteen and urged me to listen to it. Dan was quite enthusiastic about the song and I must admit that I shared his enthusiasm then and I still do now. Cheers, Dan. I’ve included the original versions of eight of the songs from the album plus earlier versions of Nobody and Wayfaring Stranger. Have a listen to these and then the versions on Solitary Man and I think you’ll find that Johnny was right not to back down too soon from the music business

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty

Solitary Man – Neil Diamond

That Lucky Old Sun – Frankie Laine

One – U2

Nobody – Nina Simone

I See A Darkness – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

The Mercy Seat – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)? – David Allan Coe

Mary Of The Wild Moor – The Louvin Brothers

Wayfaring Stranger – Emmylou Harris