When the legend outstrips reality, print the legend. That bit of sage advice informs American Recordings, the album that, even at this late date, relaunched the career of Johnny Cash by positing the legendary country singer as a man trapped between sin and salvation with only his acoustic guitar to turn to for solace. Actually, in Cash's case, the legend isn't really that far removed from reality -- the singer has never made a secret of the demons plaguing him throughout his life, nor of his attempts to combat them with strong doses of old-time religion and multicolored pills. Yet seldom has his portrait been drawn with such sharp relief as in "The Beast in Me," a cautionary tale written for Cash by his former son-in-law, Nick Lowe. There's also "Delia's Gone," a country-blues song as gritty and morbid as anything found in gangsta rap, and "Thirteen," a grim narrative written by hard-rock hellion Glenn Danzig. But signs of hope can by found in Kris Kristofferson's humble "Why Me, Lord," Tom Waits's "Down There by the Train," and Cash's own "Redemption." This album is a landmark work in a career that has more than a few magnificent touchstones, all of them hard-won.