In the publicity run-up to the 1994 release of his classic American Recordings album, Johnny Cash said there was no record he wanted to make more than that one, just him and a guitar with no excessive adornment. As it turns out, not only was that statement not hype, but Cash had been quietly making that record for over 20 years in his own studio back in Tennessee.
Personal File collects an astounding 49 recordings recorded by Cash and engineer Charlie Bragg in the House Of Cash studio from 1973 to 1980. Like what has come to be regarded as Cash’s many most popular works for Rick Rubin’s American label, these recordings are just Cash and a guitar, singing songs that meant the most to him, be they his own compositions, songs written by friends or traditional numbers. They stand in pretty stark contrast to the production of Cash’s released output from this period. In 1973, Cash was at the height of his popularity. He had just wrapped up two seasons of The Johnny Cash Show on network television and was releasing finely polished records that, while they contained many of these same compositions, featured a glitzy production style reminiscent of the evolving “Rhinestone Cowboy” phase of popular country music in the 1970’s.
These sessions were a retreat for Cash. They were dedicated to the song for the song’s sake. With no commercial pressures, producers or A&R company men standing guard over the process, Cash stripped these performances down to only the most essential and elemental level: the singer and the song. Twenty years later, audiences would discover this to be the definitive expression of Cash’s artistry. For three decades, however, these recordings would be catalogued away for Cash’s edification only, in his vault in a box marked “Personal File.”
The songs on this two-cd set are arranged thematically rather than chronologically and reflect many of the recurring themes of Cash’s oeuvre: love, sin, redemption, life, death … Adding to the intimacy level, many of the songs feature spoken introductions by Cash, as if he were introducing the songs to an audience, in which he talks about his history with the song, how he learned it, or wrote it and, more personally, why he feels such a deep connection with the composition. It’s hard to know exactly where the line is drawn between Cash the performer and Cash the person, but it’s easy to imagine the line being remarkably thin in these recordings that Cash presumed that a precious few other people besides himself would ever hear.
An extension of the spoken introductions, perhaps, the song-cycle even includes a spoken word performance, a reading of Robert Service’s grimly comic poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
The second CD is devoted entirely to Gospel music and religious songs, one of Cash’s a long-time passions. Among the traditional songs such as “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” “Lilly Of The Valley,” and “In The Sweet Bye and Bye,” Cash sprinkles in compositions of his own. They range from very traditional songs like “What On Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake?)” and “No Earthly Good,” to more unorthodox, but no less inspirational songs like “If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman (It Was Mary Magdalene).” The song selection underscores the profound role faith played in Cash’s life, while also demonstrating that his faith was fleshed out with the same maverick streak that epitomized other areas of his life.
In virtually any other artist’s career, such a voluminous collection of what are essentially demo and home recordings would be a curiosity, an artifact dug up that is of interest only to hardcore fans and critics. Coming from Cash, however, knowing that he spent much of his career at odds with his record company and/or music producers, and that he began making these recordings just after the peak of the earliest portion of his career, these renditions take on the authoritative voice in his catalogue. Cash pounds the sound of a full band out of his guitar on “A Fast Song” making it hard to imagine the song could be much improved by adding additional players.
Indeed, Rick Rubin has gotten a lot of credit in years recently past for “rediscovering” Cash’s authoritative voice. What we long suspected, and now know thanks to Personal File, is that Rubin knew well-enough just to get out of the way and let Johnny Cash be Johnny Cash. These recordings, far from being a curious historical artifact, sound less dated and, indeed, carry a timeless quality far more convincing than much of Cash’s commercial output from this period. Though lacking the grave specter that shadowed much of the work from the last decade of his life, these songs carry a gravitas that proves that this period was far from creatively fallow for the Man In Black. Indeed, Personal File invites a strong re-assessment of the middle period of Cash’s career by providing the evidence that, while there was money to be made crafting music that pandered to the lowest common denominator, Cash worked at his own expense to develop his artistry. And in that regard, Personal File is a remarkable and significant addition to the legend and legacy of Johnny Cash.