Rick Rubin’s no dummy. His ongoing resurrection of Johnny Cash for rock audiences depends on carefully manipulated grand gestures–having Cash record songs written by Glenn Danzig and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and using Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the backing band on the new Unchained (American). But without Cash’s monumental charisma and innate talent, Rubin’s efforts would amount to little more than smoke and mirrors (see his attempt at blowing some life into Donovan). In his liner notes to the new album, Cash cites the ability of Jerry Lee Lewis to make every song his own and claims that as his own goal. He succeeded: Unchained is a thoroughly contemporary-sounding record that’s also classic Johnny Cash. It doesn’t have the dark, all-acoustic theme that marked 1994’s American Recordings, and its hodgepodge of songs employs a more traditional country-music approach: the album as a collection of songs, not a concept. Petty’s country-rock backing is surprisingly sympathetic, and only on the lumbering chords of Cornell’s “Rusty Cage” do things sound stiff. The band’s greatest accomplishment is keeping clear of Cash’s singular voice. His treatment of “Spiritual,” a soaring plea for salvation written by Josh Haden (Charlie’s son and leader of the rock band Spain), is as soulful as anything he’s ever recorded, and on original two-beat shuffles like “Country Boy” and “Mean Eyed Cat” his tough, clipped delivery sounds more resonant and more assured than the cocky elocution he once used. Whatever record he’s promoting, Johnny Cash live is a wonder. He’s not the only living legend, but he’s one of the few who’s refused to become his own wax likeness. Wednesday, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dana Tynan.