Jovial, randy and anything but dark: Johnny Cash’s surprise return single Well Alright reviewed

Estimated read time 3 min read

In the great American saga of Johnny Cash, the early 90s are held to be among his lowest ebbs: the lull that made the triumphant final act of his career – the American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, critical acclaim, Grammy awards, platinum sales and all – seem all the more startling. He’d been dropped by Columbia Records after 28 years and a brief and turbulent period with Mercury had yielded mixed artistic dividends and indifferent sales. One of country music’s Mount Rushmore figures was reduced to recording Christmas songs for a now defunct budget label called Laserlight Digital.

You might consider it an era in Cash’s artistic life best forgotten, but posthumous retrospection has a way of recalibrating history: just as David Bowie’s 1990s output has been significantly upgraded since his death, so a collection of Johnny Cash songwriting demos that no label wanted in 1993 emerges 31 years later, heralded as a major new release.

Quite what these demos sounded like before their original instrumentation was stripped away and replaced with new arrangements in a classic Cash style is a matter of conjecture (the press release tactfully notes they “left something to be desired as [they] placed the songs into a particular time”, which seems to imply they might have featured the same booming stadium-sized sound and occasional ill-fitting washes of synths that bedevilled his Mercury albums) but the first single, Well Alright, comes from a different world to the flinty, austere music that would reinvigorate Cash’s career a year after it was recorded.

A jovial tale of a hook-up in a launderette that ultimately leads to marriage, filled with winking lines – “I opened up the dryer and I set it on soft and light / She said ‘be careful with my silk and lace’ and I said ‘well, alright’” – it arrives decorated with twanging reverb-heavy electric guitar, upright bass and Cash’s preferred boom-chicka-boom rhythm. It’s fun and lightweight, more in the vein of his 1976 hit One Piece At a Time than the songs that, as his daughter Rosanne once put it “reflected the sadness, the convulsions … that mythic dark night of the soul that he went through so many times”.

It’s good enough to make you believe that Cash’s 1993 demos don’t deserve to languish in obscurity, without ever suggesting his career would have blossomed again in the way it did without Rick Rubin’s vision: had it been released shortly after it was recorded, it would doubtless have met the same fate as the singles taken from 1991’s The Mystery of Life.


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