David Browne
October 09, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

American III: Solitary Man

Current Status
In Season
Johnny Cash
guest performer
Merle Haggard
Sony Music
Country, Folk

We gave it an A

Even during their youthful prime, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were a crease on the face of country. And on their new, return to form albums, they’re still ornery iconoclasts, which is either a testament to their resilience, a telling indictment of the current Nashville crop, or most likely both.

If anyone outside hip hop has a right to sing about death, dying, and more death, it’s Johnny Cash. Given the 68 year old’s recent coma and bouts with a nervous system disorder and pneumonia, Solitary Man (in stores Oct. 17) shouldn’t even exist. But Cash keeps coming, and in light of his travails, his covers of Tom Petty’s ”I Won’t Back Down,” Nick Cave’s electric chair homage ”The Mercy Seat,” and Will Oldham’s ode to depression ”I See a Darkness,” will humble any and all Goth kids.

Cash’s ”Field of Diamonds” ponders mortality to an exquisite folk gospel melody, and he eerily inhabits the traditional ”Wayfaring Stranger,” with its references to reuniting with deceased friends and family members. Though the Man in Black has rarely sounded blacker, producer Rick Rubin frames that deep sea voice with harmonies and churchly organs, making for a dark angel beauty of an album that’s austere but welcoming. Neil Diamond’s sullen title track, for instance, sounds as if it had been written for Cash all along.

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