Where to start with Johnny Cash when there are so many precious Kodak moments to choose from? Like the time in 1965 when he was wrecked on pills and busted out the Grand Ole Opry footlights. Or his mid-60s bust in El Paso for amphetamine possession. Or the time he was attacked by an ostrich while walking through a field. Or his friendships with both genius-weirdo Bob Dylan and evangelist-weirdo Billy Graham. Or, or, or. Nearly 40 years after Cash first passed through the portals of Sun Records his songs and the personal stories behind them pour out in a mighty rush, the legacy of a great American artist, rebel, and flake.

But legendary status doesn’t pay much these days in Nashville–just ask Merle Haggard. So at 62, Cash, in keeping with his consistently inconsistent choice of associates, hooked up with American Recordings label boss-weirdo Rick Rubin and recorded the conveniently titled American Recordings (1994). An avalanche of glowing press reviews followed its release. The born-again Cash was born yet again, only this time to an audience that wore crosses not as Christian symbols but as fashion accessories.

Notwithstanding all the media fuss, American Recordings staggers under its own self-consciousness, starting with the cover photo of the album. Standing in a field against a cloudy sky like some dark Moses, Cash resembles the kind of pretentious icon Charlton Heston became after he made The Ten Commandments and started believing his own myth.

Given that weak pop and soft rock continue to dominate the country charts, it would be easy to embrace American Recordings as a fresh, back-to-basics move. But the overt calculation of this album’s marketing keeps it from being anything approaching a modern classic. The music is for completists or neophytes only. Cash sings, accompanied only by himself on acoustic guitar. Rubin’s production–which does nothing more than encourage the frequently flaky Cash by giving him free rein–has been compared, ridiculously, to the direction Cash got from Sam Phillips at Sun. At this late date, considering the enormous body of his work, it’s probably unfair to expect Cash to have many new ideas in him. Covering songs by such disparate songwriters as Glenn Danzig, Kris Kristofferson, and Leonard Cohen serves as a masterful marketing tool by generating plenty of press, but “Why Me Lord” and “Bird on a Wire” were done far better by the original artists. These ultimately tired choices hardly constitute a reason for the alternative crowd to wet its collective pants.

But that’s the crowd this album is so obviously courting. The “punk” anthem that’s emerged is “Delia’s Gone,” a stark murder ballad told from the killer’s point of view. Contemporary artists like Dwight Yoakam and George Thorogood have killed their women in song, but “Delia’s Gone” is less about Delia and more about marketing to the hip crowd that believes “real” country must hew to the Appalachian dead-baby school of songwriting. This alternative faction sneers at any modern country artist who doesn’t pretend he’s auditioning for Ralph Peer at the historic 1927 Bristol sessions. Modernity is anathema, except when MTV rears its voracious head: the part of the ill-fated Delia is played by underwear model Kate Moss in the video version of the song.

So who is Cash in 1994? From listening to American Recordings it’s hard to tell. But live there’s no question–despite the hype surrounding his supposed reinvention as postmodern punk, Cash onstage is truly an overwhelming presence. At the Bismarck he proved that whatever self-indulgence and egotism he brought to Rubin’s living room stayed there.

Backed by his Tennessee Three, Cash stuck to spare and penetrating arrangements, many of which he first hashed out years ago in Memphis. It was easy to see why Cash’s music has never been quite country or quite rockabilly but a unique amalgamation that got him inducted into both the country and rock and roll halls of fame. Unlike most country stars, he used no pedal steel, no fiddle. Upright bassist Dave Rorick worked his instrument in the rockabilly slap-back fashion, working the beat against drummer W.S. Holland’s rhythms. Introducing guitarist Bob Wooton, Cash remarked, “He’s been with me since Luther died,” referring to his late, great sideman Luther Perkins. Perkins, who died in 1968, helped define the trademark Cash sound with his alternating-strings, idiot savant leads, epic statements of simplicity that were as distinctive as Cash’s voice. Wooton rose to the terrible challenge of filling Perkins’s impossible shoes. On the first number, “Folsom Prison Blues,” he replicated with real emotion that immortal handful of guitar notes that’s instantly recognizable as Keith Richards’s opening lick on “Satisfaction.”

The acoustic guitar Cash strapped on wasn’t just for show. He strummed hard throughout, an integral addition to the snapping rhythms and primal beats of his band. His voice, always a heavy baritone that conveys deep meaning within a limited range, at times showed the toll of time and was hoarse and ragged. But he held up and got the songs out like he always has.

The first portion of the set played like a stunning American songbook, from “Get Rhythm” to “Ring of Fire.” Halfway through he sat alone on a stool and accompanied himself on guitar, and even “Delia’s Gone” rang with a true heaviness missing from his recorded version. Never mind that some in the audience laughed at several of the more gruesome lines; it seemed like a nervous response at being faced with Cash’s unadulterated in-person rendition.

The utter cool turned weird when Cash brought out wife June Carter to join him and his band onstage. Dressed in a skirt suit and clunky pumps, Carter came on like a small-town businesswoman who’d stayed too long at happy hour. The hillbilly quotient went through the roof when Carter grabbed a mike and joined her husband in a caterwauling version of their famous duet “Jackson.” Carter brought the evening down to an appropriate trash level, mixing in odd portions of schmaltz and deep-woods snake-handler fervor. Cash got through it all with aplomb and deserved a great deal of credit for not hiding this element of his life from the large alternative contingent that had turned out to see him.

Throughout the show audience members gathered at the edge of the stage, shaking his hand, passing him flowers, getting closer. There was truth in Cash’s image; gone was the carefully fashioned golden calf that graces the cover of American Recordings, replaced by an even more awesome image that was personal and nakedly human. Kinda like Moses carrying those tablets down from the mountain and dealing with the folks at the bottom who’d taken to worshiping a false god.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.