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Great covers: Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994)

January 2nd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

A new year, and a new series. Here I plan to visit album covers which I like. I have no idea if they are the best ever “” an entirely subjective game anyway “” but the featured covers will have made some kind of impression on me. To limit things further, I think I”ll feature only cover art of albums I actually own. We kick things off with Johnny Cash.

After 15 years without a hit album, Johnny Cash made a remarkable comeback in 1994 with the first in his American series of albums, American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin. Although Rubin was determined to move Cash away from his tried-and-tested (and by now outdated) sound, he did not expect that much of the album would consist of the informal recordings made in a living room as research demos (plus two live tracks recorded at LA”s Viper Room).

Likewise, the cover was the result of unplanned circumstance. The cover picture had to be taken in Australia, where Cash was on tour with Kris Kristofferson. Photographer Andy Earl had scouted a deserted railway track which might give the photo an American feel in keeping with its title (and presumably to accompany two songs which riffed on train themes). The idea was to shoot Cash walking along the tracks. But the tracks didn”t come into proper focus, so the idea was abandoned. At the same time, dramatically ominous clouds were forming in the sky. Earl told Cash, wearing a long, black cloak, to stand in the adjacent wheat field. And as Cash started posing, two dogs ““ one white with black markings, the other black with white markings ““ appeared and positioned themselves on each side of Cash.

Whether the composition was indeed the result of fortuitous quirk or whether it was planned (or, hell, even photoshopped), the result is utterly dramatic and profoundly symbolic of its subject. It expresses the contradictions in Cash, the devout and gentle Christian who, for all his desire to walk the line, could and often would raise hell. The high contrasts express Cash”s contradictions, the virtuous man and the flawed. While Cash stands erect, looking much like a modern-day biblical prophet administering a blessing, thunderclouds are rolling behind him. And the dogs might represent the two sides of Cash “” as the man himself once said: the good John R. Cash and the hellraiser Johnny Cash. Or, as Cash said in an interview with the New York Post, sin and redemption. And, rightly, these are themes Cash deals with repeatedly in his lyrics on the album.

Johnny Cash – The Beast In Me.mp3
Johnny Cash – Thirteen.mp3

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  1. Eric
    January 3rd, 2009 at 23:20 | #1

    Great choice of an album for starting your new series!

  2. January 4th, 2009 at 18:42 | #2

    Johnny Cash came into a record store in which I was working in the mid-90s (during his stretch working with Rubin). Obviously, it was a very cool experience.

    Oddly enough, the Man In Black was wearing a bright, floral-patterned Hawaiian shirt. Apparently he had just spent time hanging with Keith Richards in the Bahamas.

  3. January 4th, 2009 at 22:18 | #3

    I love the idea behind the new series! :) Looking forward to more. I will admit to having bought a few albums based entirely on their covers, and I’m always dismayed when an album I like has an unattractive or boring cover.

    This one is very epic. Wowzers.

  4. January 4th, 2009 at 22:40 | #4

    Barely Awake, that is übercool. There’s a post on your blog waiting to be written. Even if it’s just to say that you shared oxygen with the great man.

  5. January 6th, 2009 at 15:25 | #5

    Cash reminds me of John Brown, the American abolitionist, in this photo.

  6. Larry
    October 23rd, 2009 at 05:07 | #6

    Does anyone know where the ablum cover can be purchased for framing? I have searched the internet, but cannot find anything.

    Thank you,

    Larry

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