Over his 39-year recording career Johnny Cash’s public image has gradually taken on a larger-than-life gravity, a quality more substantial than what usually results from mindless media exaltation of contemporary celebrities. His poetic songcraft, along with the bedrock strength and humility conveyed in the sheer artless weight of his voice, has enabled him to communicate across boundaries of class, age, and genre to such a degree that people listening to him often find themselves persuaded of notions they wouldn’t have been willing to hear from anyone else. While he has always insisted on identifying with the underdogs of society–convicts, working stiffs, terrified soldiers, shoe-shine boys, poor farmers–he’s maintained his popularity with a much wider range of the public than just the down-and-out. Bible Belt fundamentalists, Ivy League intellectuals, and punk-rock headbangers all find something to admire about him.

Cash’s persuasive power helps explain his status as only the second country-and-western artist (Hank Williams was the first) ever to cross over to the pop charts. It also explains why he’s one of my favorite singers even though I don’t usually listen to much country music–and why I can even listen to him sing about Jesus without feeling annoyed. Like Thoreau, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters, Cash is one of those you can turn to when you need to be reminded that there just might, after all, be something about American traditions that’s worth a shit, and that the USA might be more than just a bunch of traveling salespeople, armchair generals, and closet Klansmen.

In preindustrial societies the poet’s job was to explore life, pass on pieces of history and moral lessons, and ask tough critical questions. Cash comes closer to fulfilling this role in 20th-century America than anyone else I can think of who’s achieved his level of popularity. At their best, he and his guitar play a role analogous to that of Homer and Sappho with their tortoise-shell lyres or the Gambian griot with his 21-string kora. That tunes like “Cry, Cry, Cry” are virtual rewrites of Elizabethan ballads serves to remind us that the roots of poetic tradition do lie, after all, in song. And quasi-historical pieces like “Rock Island Line” or “Five Feet High and Rising” transmit important bits of the American experience to segments of Cash’s audience that will never encounter such events firsthand. While Cash’s recordings may be pegged in some quarters as folk art–and hence “unsophisticated”–they’re actually the work of an artist of great craft and subtlety who’s motivated by purposes much higher than those of your average pop or country singer.

Cash’s bardic voice was evident at the very dawn of his recording career, on the sides he cut at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records in Memphis from 1955 to 1958. While labelmates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis were busy grafting blues and southern folk elements into rockabilly, Cash concentrated on creating a startlingly new kind of country record. “Hey Porter,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and other songs featured no steel guitars, fiddles, honky-tonk pianos, or vocal harmonies–just Cash’s craggy baritone framed against the sparse, driving pulse of two guitars and a stand-up bass. The skeletal simplicity of the arrangements forced the listener’s attention toward the singer’s voice and the stories it told. It was folk music in the very best sense of the word.

Despite the success of Cash’s first few releases, Phillips soon insisted on sweetening his records with pianos and background singers–over Cash’s objections. He also steadfastly resisted Cash’s heartfelt desire to record religious songs, which Phillips regarded as commercial poison. In 1958 Cash signed with Columbia and moved to Nashville, where he was allowed to sing his religious tunes (1959’s Hymns by Johnny Cash sold well enough to be followed up by another religious LP in 1961). But as the years passed, his records–which he pumped out dutifully and prodigiously, up to three and four a year–gradually acquired more and more of that slick Nashville sheen.

The recorded legacy of Cash’s 35 years in Nashville is a wildly erratic assortment of diamonds, rust, and rancid cheese. For every Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)–one of the most exciting live albums ever made by anyone, and an almost frighteningly dramatic demonstration of Cash’s ability to connect with any audience–there are dozens of saccharine overproductions that bury Cash’s strengths underneath unbelievable piles of junk–string sections, horns, tabernacle choirs, you name it. “The producer would call the same musicians that play on everybody’s records,” Cash has since said. “We were all guilty of overproducing.” In 1986 he left Columbia to sign with Mercury, for which he cut a series of albums that were bought by hardly anybody.

After decades in Nashville, Cash had grown pretty much disgusted with a country-music machine primarily committed to cranking out cookie-cutter releases by the likes of Garth Brooks and Vince Gill. Then last year Cash was approached by Rick Rubin, whose American Recordings (formerly Def American) label was known for its controversy-heavy roster (the Red Hot Chili Peppers, hard-rock satanists Slayer, pumped-up metalhead Glenn Danzig, and stand-up monologuist Andrew Dice Clay) and who felt that if produced and promoted correctly Johnny Cash could hit with the “alternative” rock audience. Cash later said of Rubin, “I liked the way he talked about how he’d like to sit me in front of a microphone with my guitar and let me sing what I wanted to sing–much like at Sun Records.”

When the signing was announced a few months ago, I wasn’t really sure what to think. I first saw Cash live at the Cubby Bear a couple of years ago–a show that began with him harmonizing quaintly with the Carters and led into a series of chick-a-booming, ass-kicking renditions of his old Sun hits. Clearly, he hadn’t lost his juice. So I wondered whether by leaving Nashville to work with Rubin Cash would be falling into a new set of problems. Would Rubin allow Cash to be himself? Or would he try to suppress Cash’s religious and sentimental side while exaggerating his melancholy darkness–the better to market him to the MTV audience?

It’s now evident not only that Rubin has allowed Johnny Cash to be Johnny Cash but that much of the resultant American Recordings is, in its own way, as strong as any of Cash’s best music. If the Sun sides gave us Johnny Cash as a brooding young renegade, American Recordings (named after Rubin’s label–how cute) offers him as a reflective back-porch sage alone with his acoustic guitar. Cash’s signature voice is in remarkably good shape, his 62 years betrayed only by an occasional hint of wavering old-man vibrato. Like Muddy Waters, who made a wonderful series of albums late in his life with the assistance of Johnny Winter, Cash has found a producer who sees his natural style as a classic sound that simply doesn’t need to be brought “up to date.”

Although the 13 songs here are by several different writers–Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Glenn Danzig (yes, Glenn Danzig), Loudon Wainwright III, and Cash himself–the lyrics hang together well, lent unity by Cash’s formidable voice and presence, not to mention the rhythmic drive of his everyman guitar playing. But Cash’s six new originals are the most compelling. As exciting as it is to hear Cash make Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” sound like a Johnny Cash song, it’s songs like Cash’s own “Delia’s Gone,” “Drive On,” and “Redemption” that really blossom in the ear with repeated listenings.

“Delia’s Gone,” which opens the album, is a harrowing cautionary tale in the tradition of Anglo-Irish murder ballads.

First time I shot her

I shot her in the side

Hard to watch her suffer

But with the second shot she died

Other writers might have chosen to observe this incident from the victim’s point of view, playing up her suffering, or from a neutral distance, moralizing on the criminal’s depravity. But Cash puts us right behind the killer’s eyes as he sits in his cell, trying to explain to the jailer and to himself just why he killed the woman he loved. This murderer isn’t a monster but a sinner–a believable human being trapped in a nightmare of his own making. Of the three characters in the song, the killer is the one least likely to win the sympathy of most listeners–which is precisely why Cash tells the story from his point of view. A very Christian attitude, that. Cash understands that when we regard murderers as evil deviants, we conveniently avoid acknowledging that we, too, harbor the potentially murderous impulses that some Christians conceptualize as “original sin.”

In his talking blues “Drive On,” Cash gives us a Vietnam veteran plodding doggedly through the paces of everyday life, still haunted by the memory of his buddy’s death in the jungle. Here Cash is concerned not so much with condemning the wrongs of U.S. policy–something relatively easy to do at this late date–as with exploring the confused feelings of a vet who still isn’t sure what he was even doing overseas. We’re asked to set aside our political opinions and contemplate what life is like for someone who’s strayed so close to death and been scarred by the experience.

In “Cowboy’s Prayer/Oh Bury Me Not,” “Redemption,” and many of the covers, Cash challenges his young rock-and-roll audience by bringing up God and Jesus again and again and again. It’s a fairly gutsy move, and it’s pretty difficult stuff for some listeners to accept. Consider this: Just the other night I was playing this album for some friends. As we sat quietly, hitting our beers and getting a bit weepy, Cash began singing Kristofferson’s “Why Me.” At the first utterance of the word “Jesus,” one of my friends jumped up from his chair and hissed, “Fuck this shit!” And he was serious.

Cash quite obviously accepts the Jesus gospel as a given but also refuses to shrink from its more difficult implications: if God is infinitely forgiving, then what does that really say about how we humans should be treating each other? Cash’s call for tolerance and empathy–quite the opposite of moral self-righteousness–extends a good deal farther than most people’s. This can and should be interesting even to those among us who aren’t practicing Christians but who do worry about how the contemporary political dialectic on certain issues has deteriorated into an emotional argument between people who seem less interested in seeking genuinely workable solutions than in simply establishing their own moral superiority.

Learning to understand our differences and accept the existence of our own dark urges is a prerequisite for conquering the forces that threaten to destroy us. That’s why it makes some sense for Johnny Cash to sing about Jesus and sin in the same breath, to regale us with gunfighter ballads and murder songs at a time when gun violence in the U.S. keeps growing worse. It’s the bard in him that leads him to reflect us back at ourselves in this way, not only exaggerating our faults and virtues for clarity’s sake but also challenging us to examine ourselves and at least entertain the possibility of cleaning up our act. For Cash to pull all this off without sounding preachy is quite an accomplishment–but it’s pretty much his regular stock-in-trade, and the key to the durability of his mystique.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Earl.