Rick Rubin produced four installments of man-alone-with-guitar albums that redefined Johnny Cash's career in its twilight. The big question with the new double disc set "Personal File" - recorded in the same stark fashion with even sparser production - is whether it's essential to the Johnny Cash collection.
No, not by definition - to be essential is to be indispensable, important to the highest degree - for the casual listener. Those enamored only by early hits like "Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" probably won't take much away from this.
But for those who care to understand the human - and utterly humane - side of the Man in Black, this 49-track double-disc set recorded in his home studio and not intended for release is an absolutely paramount statement.
Simply put, these songs tell the story of Cash's life, both the secular and sacred. The first disc focuses on stories of the everyday folks he championed - from "The Girl in Saskatoon" to "Virgie" to his straight five-minute reading of Robert Service's poem "The Cremation Of Sam McGee." On the second, Cash sings spirituals he'd written such as "Matthew 24 (Is Knocking at the Door)" and "One Of These Days I'm Gonna Sit Down And Talk To Paul," as well as traditional tunes like "If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman" and "Farther Along."
All of the songs relate to the torturous and triumphant 71-year-long life that Cash led. But what truly makes these discs live up to the title is the introductions he tells before most songs. "Through times of loneliness and heartbreak and despair and sadness, I've always found that a good song of inspiration would lift me up, make me feel just a little bit better," Cash explains, leading into "Who At My Door Is Standing."