The recordings Johnny Cash started making for Rick Rubin's American label in 1993 launched a journey through the Great American Songbook--from traditional tunes to alt-rock--that continued until, literally, the end of his life. What wasn't known at the time was that Cash had anticipated the American Recordings concept 20 years earlier. A series of informal private sessions he recorded in 1973 featuring just voice and guitar--with a few numbers added between then and 1982--were left untouched at his House of Cash studio, unearthed only after his death in 2003. These 49 songs, labeled "Personal File," show him exploring 19th-century parlor tunes, Tin Pan Alley pop, gospel, little-known Cash originals, classic and contemporary country, and even a recitation of Robert Service's poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee." On many, his spoken introductions reveal personal ties to a given number. Cash reprises early country fare like Jimmie Rodgers's "My Mother Was a Lady" and "The Letter Edged in Black." He also revisits later country classics like the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming," close friend Johnny Horton's hit "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)," John Prine's "Paradise," and stepdaughter Carlene Carter's "It Takes One to Know Me." The second disc is a virtual hymnbook, blending traditional gospel and A.P. Carter tunes with a sacred composition by Rodney Crowell and Cash gospel originals. For those enchanted by the illness-ravaged soulfulness of Cash's later American recordings, hearing him in his prime is not only breathtaking--it underscores the depth of his still-remarkable musical vision. --Rich Kienzle
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