Friday, February 26, 2010

Johnny Cash’s final chapter is the most compelling

By James Reed, Boston Globe Staff
February 21, 2010

Johnny Cash started out as country music's brash outlaw (left) while his final years making "American Recordings" with Rick Rubin saw him become a lion in winter facing down mortality with the same determined spirit. (Thurston Moore Collection (Left); Martyn Atkins / File 2002)

“Delia’s Gone’’ was the opening salvo on “American Recordings,’’ Johnny Cash’s landmark 1994 album recorded with Rick Rubin, and it was very much in synch with Cash’s dark-hearted mythology: an old murder ballad about a man unrepentant for killing his lover.

Except the song wasn’t shrouded in the signature sounds we associated with Cash. Gone were Luther Perkins’s boom-chicka-boom guitar melodies and the winking hell-raising apparent in Cash’s performances at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. You could tell it was Johnny Cash singing, but his voice - once so virile you’d expect to hear it taming a wild bear on a mountaintop - was now grizzled, more expressive than imposing.

The album featured Cash with just an acoustic guitar, yet no one could have predicted the profound impact it would have on his legacy, not even the men who made it.

On Tuesday, the final installment in the “American Recordings’’ series will be released, leaving in its path six studio albums and a box set that enshrined Cash in the last stretch to the finish line. “American VI,’’ which arrives more than six years after Cash’s death at 71, carries the gravitas of a swan song, too, starting with its subtitle: “Ain’t No Grave.’’

Sixteen years since the series’ inaugural album, this is how an entire generation of music fans know him. They remember Cash not as a brash outlaw who once bragged about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, but rather as a lion in winter staring down his mortality with a spirit as determined as his body was broken.

“Johnny had been discarded by his former record company at that point and probably felt he had nothing to lose,’’ Rubin writes in an e-mail to the Globe, explaining why Cash agreed to record that first album with him. “Also, we hit it off fairly quickly, and he seemed excited that someone cared.’’

Their rapport was apparent from the beginning. Rubin’s touch was often so light, it’s easy to underestimate the paramount role his austere production played. By allowing Cash to interpret the songs simply and directly, he separated him from the Man in Black iconography so entrenched in his persona.

His collaboration with Cash, in fact, became a blueprint for how younger musicians and producers could extract the essence of legends long past their prime, thereby reinventing them for the blogosphere. Rubin gave Neil Diamond a similarly stripped-down treatment, starting with 2005’s “12 Songs,’’ and when Jack White produced Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose’’ in 2004, the antecedent was obvious.

“American Recordings’’ was exactly what Cash, who deftly manipulated the machinery to redefine himself like few other veteran musicians could, needed to resurrect his critical and commercial clout. We suddenly remembered that Johnny Cash wasn’t just that guy who sang “Ring of Fire’’ over a blast of mariachi horns or got us to laugh about a poor boy named Sue. “I Walk the Line’’ might have made Cash an icon, but his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt’’ made him human. That’s the greatest legacy of “American Recordings,’’ that it revealed Cash was a mere mortal whose music confronted his triumphs and demons.

Cash could have coasted for his last two decades and he still would have died a towering figure in American music, beloved by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono. Instead, Cash decided to push himself in his final decade and produce the most haunting music of his career. Listen to his stately rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’’ his voice miked so intimately it sounds like he’s sitting next to you, and it’s hard to recall how Roberta Flack’s version goes. Other times his voice was so weak that the heartache was tangible, nearly unbearable. We’re not accustomed to our idols letting us get so close to them.

With “Unchained,’’ the second installment, the series got more ambitious. Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, goading Cash into rowdy country-rock territory, and that album sent a pointed message to the country music establishment, which had written off Cash to make way for rising pop-oriented musicians.

“When you have a record like ‘Unchained’ and it wins the Grammy for best country record, it says something about the way the rest of the world relates to country music,’’ John Carter Cash, Johnny and June’s only child together, says from his home in Tennessee.

The series hit its pop-culture zenith with 2002’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around,’’ featuring that celebrated Nine Inch Nails cover and a poignant video that became a hit on MTV. But as the “American’’ series progressed, something unseemly started to take shape. The song selections unintentionally played out like an obituary: “Meet Me in Heaven,’’ “I’m Leavin’ Now,’’ “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now.’’ It smacked of cultural necrophilia, a morbid preoccupation with Cash’s failing health. He often recorded just days after being released from the hospital, and you could hear the struggle and strain in his performances.

“ ‘Hurt’ is an example of a song that was accused of that, but it was written by someone in his early 20s as a purely autobiographical song,’’ Rubin writes. “People can read what they want into these songs. When Johnny sings, it rings with truth regardless of who wrote the words.’’

Carter Cash, who was involved with editing the “American’’ series, agrees with that defense but also understands the criticism of releasing his father’s music well after his death. “I think some people may question whether this is the right thing to do - some people may even say, ‘Is this exploitive?’ - but it’s not, because it’s exactly what he intended,’’ he says.

Smokey Hormel, the esteemed guitarist who played on three of the “American Recordings’’ albums, remembers the symbiotic nature of the relationship between Cash and Rubin.

“That first record was so great that [Rubin] just left it alone, as Johnny solo, because it really gave Cash all the room he needed to show what he could do. No one had really given Cash that chance before,’’ Hormel says. “On Mr. Cash’s part, he was really looking for a chance to tell the stories that were in these songs without all the added stuff.’’

Hormel also dismisses the notion that Cash didn’t always comprehend the contemporary pop and rock songs Rubin suggested he cover, from U2’s “One’’ to Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.’’

“I was blown away when I heard his vocal performance on ‘Hurt,’ ’’ he says. “Before we recorded it, I remember Rick put on the Nine Inch Nails’s live version of it, which ends with this crazy wall of sound. We were all sitting around feeling a little nervous about how Cash was going to react. The song ended, and there’s this silence. And then he looks up and says, ‘Well, that sounds like me about 20 years ago.’ And you knew that something clicked for him. He totally got it.’’

Cash sounds especially engaged on “American VI,’’ but sometimes it’s almost too chilling to hear a man who’s on his deathbed sing songs such as “Ain’t No Grave’’ (“There ain’t no grave/ Can hold my body down’’) or “For the Good Times’’ (“Don’t look so sad/ I know it’s over’’). Rubin’s production, though, is simply elegiac, couching Cash’s voice in pastoral arrangements that imply the artist is at peace, finally.

“I truly believe that this record - which was mostly recorded after my mother died - was his greatest life’s work,’’ Carter Cash says. “I think you get a good insight into his determination. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the frailty, the weakness. You get a final snapshot of who my dad was.’’

Now that it has come to an end, Carter Cash says he sees the “American Recordings’’ series more as a reflection of his father’s lifelong mission statement.

“He would not quit or give up,’’ he says. “Even though he was heartbroken and he was sad, it was his body that gave up, not his heart.’’

James Reed can be reached at

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