Among country's old guard, Johnny Cash remains incontrovertibly cool. Arbiters of hip from '60s Dylan to '90s U2 have grooved to the renegade soul of this Arkansas sharecropper's son, this original rockabilly. Aptly, Rick Rubin provides American Recordings a production that's tougher than leather: stark guitar and Cash's wise-as-Isaiah vocal delivery. Songs by writers as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Glenn Danzig, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits make this Cash's boldest collection, but it's Cash's own work ("Delia's Gone," "Redemption") and the tense yin and yang of his restless heart and Christian soul that provoke country as cathartic as country gets.
Another snowcapped mountain, Willie Nelson plays it safe on Healing Hands. Grouping his classics ("Crazy," "Night Life") with standards of the sort that propelled Stardust ("I'll Be Seeing You," "All the Things You Are"), his 1978 crossover breakout, country's mildly disreputable granddad battles a clot of strings but slices through. The character of his singing, after all — as rivetingly mannerist as any jazz vocalist's — cannot be denied.
Duets have been the fail-safe airplay guarantor of recent years, so Tammy Wynette's series of star turns with Sting, Lyle Lovett, Smokey Robinson, Wynonna and Joe Diffie is no conceptual earth shaker. But Without Walls contains enough of her trademark overbrimming emotion to jerk bountiful tears. With Conway Twitty gone, Tammy finds in her old partner George Jones the only real rival to her gift for gush.