But then, in a way, diary entries are precisely what these songs are - or memoirs. In his liner notes, Greil Marcus writes that the music in Cash's personal file "feels as if it were made as a kind of will, to be opened after his death." It certainly has that feel; a man reaching the midpoint of his life (most of the recordings hail from July of 1973, when Cash was 41), looking back at the songs that inspired him and the memories they suggest. But let me add another metaphor to the litany: with the tapes collected in Personal File, Cash created a time capsule of himself; not just a will or a memoir, but his very essence, bottled for posterity. His homespun warmth, his spiritual convictions, his flair for storytelling of all stripes are all present and accounted for here in a form largely untouched by the "Man in Black" mythos which turned him into an icon.
Perhaps the real reason why Johnny Cash decided to create a personal file for himself is because he wanted a chance to be himself entirely - to make music without the mantle of expectation that came with legendary songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," and "I Got Stripes." Of course, Cash would later record in a similar vein for public consumption: the solo acoustic performances of American Recordings would meet with acclaim in 1994 for their spare, minimalist intensity. For all that album's merits, however, these tapes from two decades earlier paint a far more complete, complex, and human portrait. Nobody's claiming that Johnny Cash, the myth, didn't scale greater heights both before and after he opened his personal file. But for J.R. Cash, the man — at least as closely as any of us could know him — this collection might just be the last word.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins