Written by Fantasma el Rey
Johnny Cash’s America is a great look at how the country shaped his songwriting and how Johnny Cash shaped America. The DVD is a documentary that takes you on the trip through some of these places and presents the thoughts of those that Cash had a major effect on, be it in their lives or on the music that some of them went on to create. From senators to other country artists and rap world icons, Cash hit a chord with them all. Here on this 88-minute disc we get to see and hear a bit of that along with the Johnny Cash story told in his own words as well as by those who knew and loved him best.
The DVD opens with a wonderful salute to the way that he would open his shows. Many of the people interviewed for this project say in their own way, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” and it works masterfully, setting the tone for the film and how it will run as the footage that rolls around them flashes images of the Man In Black at his peek. Saying hello are Ozzy Osbourne, Merle Haggard, and Snoop Dogg to name a few of those that gave their thoughts and stories to the cameras. These people of various backgrounds are what set this documentary apart from others that glance back on the life of Mr. Cash, born simply J.R. and dubbed “Johnny” while in the Air Force.
The documentary traces the life of Johnny Cash using old footage and interviews but we rarely see him giving these interviews; we hear them over images of the places he’d been, wrote, and sang about. What we do see laced throughout are the on-camera interviews with the people of the land that Cash had a major effect on. From the cotton fields of Dyess, Arkansas and death of his brother Jack at an early age, to his travels in the armed forces and around the world with his tours, we hear from the man himself how it was and how he was inspired to write his songs. And even though plagued by personnel demons, Cash never backed down from singing what he though was right.
Senator Lamar Alexander reminds us that Johnny Cash was always invited and welcomed at the White House by the Presidents; Al Gore also shares his thoughts and memories of Cash who never chose a political side but always stood for what he thought was worth fighting for. While family members give their versions of what life was like at different times in his life. Cash’s sister takes us back to the home that they knew as children as his son John Carter tags along and brings a new generation of Cashes to the land where the legend took root. Daughters Roseanne and Cindy reflect on how it felt when their father was home from the road in their youth and in later life and how his love for his wife June Carter fueled his everyday life to the end of hers and his.
Fellow outlaw country artists Haggard and Kris Kristofferson tell tales of wild, sober, and wise Cash as another American original. Bob Dylan lets us in on what it was like to work with him on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. We also hear from rapper Snoop Dogg about what his friends thought of his listening to Cash and how Snoop came to own his first Cash record. Snoop’s take is one of the highlights of this DVD as it’s always good to hear how Johnny Cash can make a connection to anybody anywhere by his simple music and lyrics of life, love, and devotion.
The companion CD is worth owning for the fact that it mirrors the DVD and contains some songs not found on other best-of CDs. It has the alternate and rare versions of a few key tunes used on the DVD. “Ride This Train” and “What Is Truth” are two examples of how Cash can give more of a talking-blues delivery as used in his “Singin’ In Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” a true nod to his friend Bob Dylan. “I Am The Nation” is Cash performing spoken-word poetry and doing it well with a force that reaches beyond chest-thumping and hits home, making you smile as you think how much he loved his country and makes you feel the same way with his words and voice.
Other tunes on the CD do a good job in covering the many aspects of Cash’s music. His gospel side (“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” “Children Go Where I Send Thee”), songs inspired by the history of our nation (“Big Foot,” “Ragged Old Flag,” “All God’s Children Ain’t Free”) his early hits (“Big River,” “Folsom Prison Blues (Live at Folsom),” “Cry, Cry, Cry,”) and the latter-day reflective reworking of a Nine Inch Nails’ classic (“Hurt”). Overall a nice collection of songs for the casual fan while hardcore Cash fans will enjoy the unreleased takes.