CD Review of Personal File by Johnny Cash

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Personal File
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Columbia/Legacy Records
Released: 2006
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The legend of Johnny Cash continues to evolve and, not altogether unlike that of Elvis Presley, his popularity is exploding in the years immediately following his death. Particularly among younger generations, there has been a rejuvenated interest in recent years in all things Cash – his music, his family, and his legacy. Certainly, last year’s blockbuster film “Walk the Line,” a romantic biography of Johnny and June Cash, did as much as a movie possibly could to expose new age groups to the timeless icon’s material. Couple that with producer Rick Rubin’s ongoing devotion to Cash’s career (the fifth edition in his series of American Recordings is due next month) and it could be said that the Man in Black’s flame has never burned brighter.

Personal File arrives in time to simply prime the pump, if you will, while we await the American V project. It follows last year’s Grammy Award-winning box set Johnny Cash: The Legend. As the story goes, Personal File represents an archive of privately recorded tapes recently discovered, like the sunken treasures onboard the Titanic, at the House of Cash estate in Hendersonville, Tennessee. It’s a sprawling two-disc set, nearly fifty songs in all, that was recorded during a furious one-week session in 1973. A smattering of traditional folk and gospel tunes, many of which are covers from such unknowns as the Louvin Brothers, Eddy Arnold, and Johnny Horton, he delivers these songs in a very narrative tone. Much of the first disc features Cash storytelling between songs (and VH-1 thought they cornered the market on that concept 25 years later). There are familiar titles like “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “Missouri Waltz,” as well as covers of pals Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, and a few originals penned by Cash himself, including “One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down and Talk to Paul” and “Lord, Lord, Lord,” which demonstrate his remarkable ability as a gospel songwriter.

Disc Two finds a similar nostalgic mood and storytelling theme, but many of these songs spill over into the later ‘70s and even early ‘80s. Traditional church hymns “Farther Along” and “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” as well as the Cash original “A Fast Song,” represent the most current material within Personal File, all recorded in mid-1982. There is nothing stirring or raucous about these songs. Both discs are as stripped down and intimate as they could be – just Cash and his quietest acoustic guitar. There are no backing musicians, no fancy arrangements, and an absolute void of production. Remember, these were supposedly lost tapes, recorded in private, buried beneath a house like a tomb. Whether Cash ever intended for these songs to be released or not will never be known. These unrefined recordings can hardly be held up as the legend’s finest work, yet they do provide one more thread to be woven into his grand tapestry.

~Red Rocker