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Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are still our greatest Storytellers

Cash said last year there were 70 songs recorded for American Recordings, 14 of which turn up on the highly sought-after American Outtakes bootleg CD that's every bit as good as the original--perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's L.A. living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease ("Friends in California" especially) than its "predecessor": Cash's voice is piercing and doomsaying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable are Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar), and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash said. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me.

"But the thing about American Recordings was that I didn't want it to sound and feel like a performance. I wanted it to be that I had my guitar in my hand and I was singin' to you and you alone. Or singin' to myself. They had to have that feeling before we would put it on the list, and they had to be a good song--I don't know if there are any great songs on that album. There's a lot of good songs that have come along, but not many great songs. But we had to believe they were all good songs we picked, and some songs are better than others. Some old songs are as good as they ever were, but some aren't as good as they used to be when it comes to recordin' them."

If 1996's Unchained--featuring no less than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood--seemed somehow less satisfying than Cash's American debut, it was because American Recordings was the record Cash had always wanted to make. He had long dreamed of doing the solo acoustic album ("called Late and Alone," Cash said in 1997) and was told by Columbia and Mercury execs he couldn't, so American Recordings reverberated with the echoes of passion and perfection. Unchained was only bound to pale in comparison because it was more like any other record, less like a Personal Statement.

Unchained did have its brilliant moments, though: A cynic might dismiss his cover of Beck's "Rowboat" as cheap gimmickry, but Cash somehow found a way to make it his own--to turn Beck's ironic throwaway into a sad folk hymn, twisting the young man's words into his own woeful poem ("My body's out of tune/With the burnin' waves"). "'Rowboat' was one of those things that feel pretty natural," Cash says. "It sounds like something I might have written in the '60s, when I was goin' through my self-induced [drugs and alcohol] hell."

And his versions of "Country Boy" and "Mean Eyed Cat" (which Cash first recorded in 1955 for Sam Phillips) recall that young Arkansas-born rockabilly rebel who stepped into Sun Studios in the mid-1950s; indeed, his voice sounds somehow more alive on those two songs than it has in years--higher, livelier, like a man sneaking up on the beginning instead of crawling toward the end. Even his take on Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" doesn't sound inappropriate--it simply, somehow, just doesn't sound as dangerous as "Country Boy." Cash, after all, has lived The Life; Soundgarden's Chris Cornell probably read about it.

Cash was skeptical of the whole affair from the very beginning--worried Petty and the band would use the opportunity of backing Cash to shine, nervous about whether the Heartbreakers would be able to interpret his vision for Unchained.

"For this record, it was about recording with some musicians I was really comfortable with and getting the whole music flow," Cash said. "When we were recording 'The One Rose,' everybody had the same goal in mind; everybody was in one accord emotionally, spiritually, and every other way. It was like this whole song, from all the instruments, came through me. It's like I took everything they were giving me and putting it through my soul and out my mouth. That's the way these songs had to work. They had to feel like they could be a part of me. Like 'Folsom Prison Blues' is a part of me. There's no separating me from that song. Well, I had to feel that these songs on this album were that way--that they were that good."

To that end, Cash was unsure whether Rick Rubin would find an arrangement of "Rusty Cage" that sounded suitable. Indeed, when Rubin first played him the Soundgarden original, Cash scoffed at the idea--it was no more his song than "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Hava Nagila."

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