Johnny Cash's American Recordings

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

As part of its ongoing "33 1/3 Series," Continuum recently released JOHNNY CASH'S AMERICAN RECORDINGS by Tony Tost, a poet/teacher who is "currently completing a dissertation on myth, technology and the poetic imagination at Duke University."

Continuum has published nearly a hundred books in the 33 1/3 series, all of which focus on a famous rock album and/or the musicians responsible for the album. In Cash's case, the author analyzes in minute detail the CD which Cash and producer Rick Rubin worked on together back in 1993, when the singer's career was on a downward spiral. Recorded in Cash's cabin and Rubin's living room (and at a club in Hollywood), the album features Cash on acoustic guitar singing ditties like Bird on the Wire, Redemption and Down There By the Train.

The unexpected success of the album gave Cash a new life, enabling him, as Tost says, "to return to his mythic self, like a novelist returning to a favorite character, to see what complications and revelations had previously been hid."

Tost adds that "American Recordings brought Cash back to the public as the lone survivor of a lost republic, the final rememberer of how--for good or evil--things shall never be again. He was an archaeologist of twilight, the grievous scholar of American sin."

Likening Cash to Herman Melville, Tost writes, "Another melancholy guardian of the guilts and dreams of his people, Cash was finally also another author voyager, marking the distances one must travel, pilgrimaging back and forth between sin and redemption, between remembrance and prophecy, from silence to song and then back again."

Remarks like these made me think of something the novelist John Gardner once said, "Criticism makes art sound more intellectual than it is."

(202 pages, ppbk., $12.95)