Johnny Cash faced the darkness and didn't back down with the ravaged reinvention and singular storytelling of this wild wayfaring merciful measure of truth. After thirty-six albums in nearly thirty years, Columbia Records dropped Cash from their roster in 1987. He spent the next five years with Mercury Records, who also let him go. It was around this time that he connected with producer Rick Rubin, who convinced Cash to sign with his American Recordings label. Their first project together American Recordings was recorded primarily in his living room with just his guitar. It became a huge success and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
The next collaboration American II: Unchained featured Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his backing band and went on to win the Best Country Album Grammy. It was around this time that 'The Man In Black' began to suffer from a degenerative nerve disorder that affected his ability to perform. Cash would later reveal: "I have had some tough times. I have had pneumonia three times in the last three years -- four times in the last three years. And it debilitates you. It takes the strength away. Took the life out of my legs and I can walk, but not very well...Autonomic neuropathy...it's kind of -- the way I understand it, it's a deadening of the nerve cells of the nerve endings in the lower extremities and sometimes the hands and other extremities. And for me that's really about the only thing it's really affected a lot. I'm not sure that it's affected my lung power but I don't have the lung power I did. But of course, pneumonia will take that away too...It was 1993 and I was hospitalized with a -- I went into a coma and I was there for 12 days. They all thought I was dying and they couldn't diagnose what was wrong with me. They finally came up with a diagnosis of Shydreger (ph) Syndrome. It was few months later they realized I didn't have that so it was Parkinson's. And then it was not that. Then finally it was autonomic neuropathy...Finally got it right. And I'm pretty well resolved to the fact that that's what it is. And it's a slow process of the nerve endings...I don't think [there's a cure]. But that's all right. There's no cure for life either...I don't go out and sing. I don't do concerts any more because the physical thing of going out there and doing concerts and the planes and the cars and the hotels and all that. And the backstage is where it's so dark I have a hard time. My vision is -- my vision is over. I'd probably say 60 percent gone because of the neuropathy. And the diabetes...I can still record, yes. I have been in the studio a lot. I have focused my energies from the road to the studio and it really feels good. I'm really enjoying it...I'm not bitter. Why should I be bitter? I'm thrilled to death with life. Life is -- the way God has given it to me was just a platter -- a golden platter of life laid out there for me. It's been beautiful...Things have been good. And things will get better all time...No regrets."
Rubin remembers: "I know he wanted to be able to do more than he was physically able to do. He couldn’t understand why one day he would come in and be able to sing great, and feel good, and then the next day he would come in and not be able to catch his breath, or would have to lie down between takes. He was suffering a lot. Actually, he had suffered for a lot of years, and yet he could still get the job done whenever he wanted to. But now, for the first time, he was experiencing times when he wanted to be working, and the frustration of either physically not being able to do it, or mentally not being able to stay focused, or voice-wise, not being of strong voice. This was all new to him, and it was very difficult for him to deal with...I know there were times when he wished his voice was better. Sometimes he felt embarrassed, and it really took the people around him to say, 'This is beautiful, and we love it.' And again, he trusted the people who were saying that, because we really did feel that way. But there were times, I know, when he felt a little insecure about his voice and wished he sounded stronger...[He had an ability to inhabit other people's songs completely.] I think part of it has to do with just what a bright and wise person he was. Putting aside singing songs, if he just told you a story, he was able to explain things in such a way that you really understood them. And he knew so much about so much, and had lived so much in his life; the wisdom that came along with that showed up whenever he spoke. That transferred into his storytelling in his songs. He just had that power. When he said it, you believed it. It’s an unusual gift."
The third installment of his partnership with Rubin American III: Solitary Man combined the stripped down approach of American Recordings with the collaboration of American II: Unchained and included the vocal talents of June Carter Cash, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, Will Oldham, and Tom Petty. Haggard, Norman Blake, Mike Campbell, Larry Perkins, Randy Scruggs, and Marty Stuart also contributed guitar.
American III: Solitary Man became his highest charting album in nearly twenty-five years, going to number eighty-eight on the pop album chart and number eleven on the country album chart.
"The Mercy Seat"
American III: Solitary Man
"I Won't Back Down" (Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne) – 2:09
Originally recorded by Petty for Full Moon Fever (1989)
"Solitary Man" (Neil Diamond) – 2:25
Originally recorded by Diamond as a single (1966)
"That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)" (Haven Gillespie/Beasley Smith) – 2:35
Originally a hit for Frankie Laine (1949)
"One" (Bono, Adam Clayton, The Edge, Larry Mullen) – 3:53
Originally recorded by U2 for Achtung Baby (1991)
"Nobody" (Egbert Williams) – 3:14
Originally recorded by Williams in 1906
"I See a Darkness" (Will Oldham) – 3:42
Originally recorded by Oldham for I See a Darkness (1999)
"The Mercy Seat" (Nick Cave/Mick Harvey) – 4:35
Originally recorded by Cave for Tender Prey (1988)
"Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)" (David Allan Coe) – 2:41
Originally recorded by Tanya Tucker for the album of the same name (1974)
"Field of Diamonds" (Cash, Jack Routh) – 3:15
Originally recorded by Cash and Waylon Jennings for Heroes (1986)
"Before My Time" (Cash) – 2:55
"Country Trash" (Cash) – 1:47
Originally recorded by Cash for Any Old Wind That Blows (1973)
"Mary of the Wild Moor" (Dennis Turner) – 2:32
Originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers for Tragic Songs of Life (1956)
"I'm Leavin' Now" (Cash) – 3:07
Originally recorded by Cash for Rainbow (1985)
"Wayfaring Stranger" (Traditional) – 3:19
Old folk song previously recorded by countless artists
American II: Unchained
American III: Solitary Man
American IV: The Man Comes Around
American V: A Hundred Highways