Still, with the right audience, geezer cred can work wonders for country legends. In the early '90s, Johnny Cash signed with American Records and found himself the toast of the college/indie crowd, his charisma and catalog skillfully milked by rock/rap impresario Rick Rubin. Solitary Man is the third album Cash has recorded for the label, and, once again, it's a mix of self-mythologizing and soulful traditionalism. Half the tracks are cover tunes, which employ varying degrees of irony. Cash's low-key delivery on songs by Tom Petty, U2, and Neil Diamond is oddly wonderful, but his version of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" (itself a painfully obvious tribute to Cash's style) is just as insufferable and overblown as the original.
Merle Haggard, another hick music legend with a rebellious sheen, makes his entry into the wow-the-college-kids genre with an equally understated record that could double as the soundtrack to a biopic on George Dubbya Bush. The opening verse is a sure-fire attention-getter about watching old friends snorting coke while yearning for the recklessness of bygone days. Party animal nostalgia echoes through the album, shamelessly balanced by a maudlin "confession" to his kids regarding the youthful indiscretions that sent Merle up the river to San Quentin. Despite the baldness of the writing, this is easily one of Haggard's best albums in decades. Both Cash and Haggard seem paradoxically impelled to put more effort into their songs when playing to the non-country audience. Say what you will about their marketing strategies, but these old guys can still cut the mustard.