05 November 1996
Unchained is the second of the American Recordings albums that Johnny Cash recorded with producer Rick Rubin. But where the first disc was just Cash on solo acoustic guitar, this record might as well be credited to Johnny Cash Featuring Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, as they accompany him throughout.
This is a covers collection and the list of original artists includes the usual suspects, like The Carter Family and, in this case, Tom Petty, but also stretches to include Chris Cornell, Josh Haden, and Beck. Of course, when they all feature Cash’s inimitable baritone at the forefront, they become less like covers and more like completely new songs.
He doesn’t go to great lengths to countrify songs like “Rowboat” or “Rusty Cage,” giving them a fairly straightforward arrangement and performance, while his own standard “Country Boy” comes off as less country and more rollicking southern rock with Petty and crew behind the wheel.
He pulls out a great version of “Memories Are Made Of This,” which I always think of as a Dean Martin song. Surprisingly, the cover of Petty’s own “Southern Accents” is one of the few tracks that fall flat here even though I enjoy the original.
I like this era of Johnny Cash’s output but I think I prefer the song selection on the first American Recordings album to this one. That said, the inclusion of Tom Petty and his band was an inspired decision and they really shine on the more uptempo rock numbers like “I’ve Been Everywhere” and “Country Boy.” In short, you can’t go wrong with Johnny Cash and this album is no exception.