When Johnny Cash signed with Rick Rubinâ€™s American Recordings label in 1992, it would mark the beginning of one of the most celebrated artistic resurrections in popular music. The resulting album, released in 1994, consists of spare, dark cover versions taken from a wildly eclectic American songbook.
When I look at the cover, the first word that comes to mind is biblical. Everything about the image is ominous and powerful, with Cash cast as both preacher and sinner. He would be perfect as the harbinger of doom in some spooky film.
For all its powerful evocation of dark Americana, the cover photography was taken in Australia during Cashâ€™s 1992 tour with Kris Kristofferson. Photographer Andy Earl had intended to shoot Cash at a railway track but when the lighting wasnâ€™t working he moved to an adjacent wheat field. The eerie dogs, with their inverse black and white colouring, just happened to run into frame and position themselves. Perhaps the wry look on Cashâ€™s face is inspired by this series of serendipitous events – a hunch that things were finally looking up.
The one element of this cover that is no accident – the bold typography – would help to define Cashâ€™s new brand moving forward.
On American III Cash is backstage, still going about the life of a gigging musician:
Until American IV sees the singer-songwriter being swallowed by the colour that defined him. Having earned his redemption the hard way, the man in black seems resigned to a meeting with his maker.
As the American Recordings series continued, Cashâ€™s personal mythology and impending death would resonate powerfully, most famously in the video clip for his cover of Nine Inch Nailsâ€™ Hurt:
Cash wrote so much important music and for so long. So it seems only fitting that he would eventually be given the collaborators he needed to write the perfect farewell.