Johnny Cash is talking to you. He’s telling you about one of the first songs he ever sang for an audience – “a critical audience,” he says. He chuckles at the memory. Even though you can’t see him, his voice tells you he’s smiling big, the skin crinkling around his eyes. Then he starts singing. He’s got his guitar, of course. And that’s all there is. The guitar. That voice.
The song is “Far Away Places,” written in 1948 by Joan Whitney Kramer and Alex Kramer. Cash, born in 1932, would have been 16 years old when he first heard it on the radio. What we’re listening to now is Johnny Cash more than 20 years later, sitting in his private recording studio, reminiscing about songs from his childhood, songs he’s written but never recorded, and music that just plain touches him. It’s a mixture of humor, darkness, piety, poetry, and sweetness.
If that combination sounds familiar, then you’re probably familiar with American Recordings, the 1994 Johnny Cash album that producer Rick Rubin masterminded. Although later collaborations between Cash and Rubin would boast all-star back-up bands and vocalists, American Recordings was just the Man in Black and his guitar. It’s a terrific album, arguably one of the very best from that decade. And yet Personal File, released three years after Cash’s death, offers a musical experience just as intimate and memorable – and possibly superior.
The liner notes, by compilation producer Gregg Geller, explains where the music comes from:
Deep within the House of Cash, Johnny Cash`s recording studio, office suite, and museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee, behind the studio`s control room, was a small vault-like space in which many of his most prized possessions were stored. A collection of rare firearms dating back to the 18th Century, some personal effects of Jimmie Rodgers, artwork and letters from fans all over the world and much more was carefully arranged and locked away for safekeeping. Then there were the tapes. Hundreds of them. Demos from songwriters, album masters, multi-tracks of the ABC television series, and some boxes marked simply “Personal File.” These are Johnny`s most intimate sessions, recorded mostly in 1973 and then subsequently at his leisure.
The two-disc set has been a favorite of mine ever since its release, but I must admit that I favor the first disc over the second. The spirituals and hymns that make up the second half of Personal File are fine songs, but they don’t seize hold of me like the songs of the first half.
The collection opens with Cash covering Hattie Nevada’s “The Letter Edged in Black,” a melancholy song about a son learning of his mother’s death. The more you hear it, the more it breaks your heart. But please, don’t go thinking that this is just an assortment of beautiful-but-glum sad bastard music. There are plenty of light-hearted songs, like Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man” and the Johnny Cash original “A Fast Song,” as well as beautiful ballads such as the 18th century “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” and Ira and Charlie Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming.” (Okay, I admit it, that last one is about as weepy as it gets. It’s too good not to mention, though.) There’s even a guitar-less recitation of the bizarre poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by the now-underrated American poet Robert Service.
But my two favorite pieces are something else entirely. The first is “Saginaw, Michigan” by Bill Anderson and Don Wayne (originally performed by country singer Lefty Frizzell back around 1963). True, I’m partial to the song because it takes place in Michigan, and despite Sufjan Stevens’s best efforts, there just aren’t that many songs about the Great Lakes State. The song’s premise doesn’t seem like anything new – at first:
I loved a girl in Saginaw, Michigan.
The daughter of a wealthy, wealthy man.
But he called me: “That son of a Saginaw fisherman.”
And not good enough to claim his daughter’s hand.
The protagonist then goes to Alaska to strike it rich. This is where the song starts to spark, as our hero writes home that’s he’s found gold – the biggest claim in Klondike history, in fact – which, not unsurprisingly, causes the girl’s father to look at him in a completely different light. The man returns to Saginaw, weds the girl, sells his claim to his new father-in-law, and then laughs at selling the greedy man a piece of land devoid of anything but snow and dull rock. His wife laughs too. Saginaw’s a better place without her father.
The song’s mischievous turn is delightful, and Johnny Cash’s warm delivery leaves no doubt that he relishes the plot’s last-minute twist.
The other song also features a twist. It’s a 19th century piece (author unknown) entitled “My Mother Was a Lady.” Personal File is full of rich offerings, but this one is my very favorite. The bouncy vocals, Cash’s quick tempo (compared to some other interpretations, like Marty Robbins’s), the vivid imagery of a hotel waitress standing up to two crude diners, their shamed reply, and the unabashed sweetness which is the song’s core – all these things meld to form a ballad brief, endearing, and unforgettable.
Personal File is available on Spotify, and is still available for to buy elsewhere. If you’re already a Johnny Cash fan, then this collection is indispensable. If you’re not (but for some reason have read this far anyway), I promise, it isn’t too late. There are more than 50 Johnny Cash albums. No one can say he wasn’t prolific. True, it’s not all great. Even some of the stuff off the Rubin-produced American albums is hard to take (the cover of U2′s “One,” for example, or the cheesy, far-from-unforgettable rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”). But with Personal File, we’re reminded that Johnny Cash is never better than when he’s left alone with a guitar and his love of music. Give the man a few chords and the opportunity to share his favorite songs, and he’ll take you to Galway, to Saskatoon, to Jonesborough, to Saginaw. Y’know. Far away places, with strange-sounding names.