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Music Review: Johnny Cash’s ‘Songwriter,’ a collection of unreleased songs from 1993, is a journey

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NEW YORK (AP) — In 1993, Johnny Cash was between record contracts — and just about to embark on an iconic collaboration with producer Rick Rubin that would span the last 10 years of his life, starting with 1994’s “American Recordings.”

During that crucial time in his career, Cash immersed himself in crafting and recording original demos that showcased his songwriting prowess. Those songs, once set aside, will be released Friday as a complete album. Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, stripped the recordings back to just his father’s voice and acoustic guitar — and enlisted co-producer David “Fergie” Ferguson and some musicians his father previously worked with to round out the recordings.

Aptly titled “Songwriter,” the album features 11 tracks all penned by Cash. Just two tracks will be familiar to fans of the Rubin records: “Drive On” and “Like a Soldier” were previously released on “American Recordings.” While the Rubin renditions favored deeply-felt minimalism — just an acoustic guitar and Cash’s idiosyncratic vocal tone — the “Songwriter” versions possess a more layered sound with additional instrumentation. Not better, just different.

Emphasizing Cash’s role as a songwriter, this collection exists in contrast to his typical albums or recorded live performances, which often blend his own compositions with other writer’s songs. This album allows listeners to appreciate Cash as a performer, composer and lyricist, highlighting a unique intersection of his artistic journey.

The previously released first single, the rockabilly infused “Well Alright,” exudes Cash’s unmistakable style to such a degree that it could have easily found a place alongside classics like “Big River.” (In an alternative timeline, the track might appear in The Grateful Dead ’s repertoire back in the day — they’ve certainly covered many Cash songs.)

In whole, “Songwriter” provides insight into a short creative phase of Cash’s career that would become interrupted by a brilliant creative collaboration with Rubin. While not his most audacious work, “Songwriter” still serves as a poignant journey into a defining moment of Cash’s musical legacy. And who doesn’t love to hear previously unheard material from the Man in Black?


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Associated Press