David Browne
October 13, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

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 Cash. Given the 68-year-old’s recent coma and bouts with a nervous system disorder and pneumonia, Solitary Man (in stores October 17) shouldn’t even exist. But Cash keeps coming, an 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 ”Wayfraing 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.

Another highlight of Solitary Man is ”I’m Leavin’ Now,” a duet with Merle Haggard that finds the two old buzzards kissing off an old flame like those two balcony geezers on The Muppet Show. Hag’s own new work, If I Could Only Fly, isn’t as intense as Cash’s, but it’s a low key, assured session imbued with Hag’s mellowed delivery and trademark restlessness (the luminous title track), sentimentality (”Wishin’ All These Old Things Were New”), and horniness (”Bareback,” spotlighting his band’s Western swing soloing).

Only Hag could get away with swiping the chorus of ”Honky Tonk Women” for his own ”Honky Tonk Mama.” But 10 years from now, Mick Jagger should consider himself lucky to sound as vital as these men.

Solitary Man: A
If I Could Only Fly: A-

You May Like