There is a tendency to think that mythological figures have never been vulnerable. Such is the case with the legend that is Johnny Cash. But before he hooked up with Rick Rubin in the early nineties and reinvented himself as the oracle of the alternative-music generation, Cash was a country-music dinosaur trying to stay current in a Nashville that was about to be taken over by the pop-country Godzilla known as Garth Brooks. Cash had spent much of the eighties in a creative funk. He had found some minor success on the nostalgia circuit as a member of the Highwaymen, but his releases for Mercury Records were both artistically and financially disappointing. It was only when Cash collaborated with the erstwhile rap mogul that he found the admiration and success that he enjoyed until his death in 2003. This live performance, recorded in 1990 at the Paramount theater in Asbury Park, comes from the turbulent years before the American Recordings series and chronicles Johnny Cash at a vulnerable point in his career, before he found this new direction. The Great Lost Performance is a wonderful piece of Cash history, a document of that period before he recast himself as the paragon of cool.
One of the collection’s main selling points is that it contains two very rare tracks, “A Wonderful Time up There” and “What Is Man,” neither of which is revelatory. Both songs are gospel, which appeals to only a small section of Cash fans, and both were written during what has been widely acknowledged as a creative slump for one of country’s most prolific and most important songwriters. They are easily better than most of the pop music that is currently branded as country, but neither adds substantially to the Cash legacy.
The other songs on The Great Lost Performance are a standard collection of familiar Cash favorites and some gospel tunes, played in a Branson-style country that could turn off many American Recordings fans who might not realize that Cash was a bona fide country musician before he covered Danzig and Soundgarden. He was, in fact, the youngest living inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and The Great Lost Performance is country music of the highest quality. And though there are doubtless better recordings of the songs on this album, the intimacy of the commentary Cash provides for each of the songs makes The Great Lost Performance a unique collection. The highlight is “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” as Cash prefaces the tune by wishing Kris Kristofferson a happy eighty-first birthday. June Carter also makes a spirited appearance, adding some thoughts on being married to a living legend and vocals on “The Wreck of the Old ’97” and the couple’s signature tune, “Jackson.” Cash plays through the set list with an exuberant happiness that he traded for the gravitas of the American Recordings era. Although the artistic impact of those albums may have been greater, The Great Lost Performance captures the humble, human side of Johnny Cash overshadowed by his legendary stature.