Unearthed, last fall’s five-CD collection of outtakes and unreleased material from Johnny Cash’s ten years with the American Recordings label, comes in a box as black as Cash’s tormented soul. The sleeves are made of CD-scratching cardboard, as unbending as Cash’s famous raised middle finger. The shrink-wrap is tenacious, as tenacious as…
Well, you get the idea. One glance at Unearthed will tell you that Cash is a serious artist, and that American Records is a virile, forward-looking, serious company that knows how to package him. That stodgy old labels like Columbia and Mercury never knew what to do with an iconoclast like Cash–it took American’s founder, Rick Rubin, producer of landmark rap and heavy metal acts like LL Cool J and Slayer, to recognize his greatness and rescue him from oblivion. We know this is true because Nick Tosches (a weathered and authentic fellow in his own right) is quoted as saying so in the liner notes to Unearthed. “Johnny Cash at 61 was history,” writes Tosches, “an aging, evanescent country music archetype gathering dust in a forgotten basement corner of the cultural dime museum.” It wasn’t until he made his first album for American in 1994, adds Tosches, that the singer achieved “the imprimatur of ageless cool.”
That’s the official version, anyway. And it’s true enough that Cash’s career was in a slump in the 80s and early 90s–a slump serious enough that he thought he might cease recording altogether. But he was scarcely the forgotten man Tosches makes him out to be. In 1993, for example, Cash did a well-publicized cameo on the closing track of U2’s Zooropa. It didn’t take a visionary to figure out there was still an audience for Cash; all Rubin had to do was open a newspaper.
American has worked hard at propagating the idea that Cash’s career would have been over without Rubin, but there’s been relatively little attention paid to how much Cash has done for American Recordings. Usually a label promotes the artist, but in this case something like the opposite took place. Cash’s first record for American Recordings was pointedly titled American Recordings (a redundancy I heard Cash make fun of in concert, referring to “the album American Recordings on the American Recordings label, recorded right here in America”). The sequel, Unchained, had a freestanding title, but the next two–American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around–formalized the conflation of artist and label. The back cover of Unearthed is American’s upside-down flag logo on a field of black.
Piggybacking of this kind was nothing new for Rubin. As producer for the Beastie Boys in the 80s, Rubin chased the limelight assiduously, appearing in their videos and performing with them as DJ Double R. He reportedly considered himself the fourth member of the band. If the Beastie Boys agreed, they’d apparently changed their minds by ’87, when they left Def Jam, Rubin’s label at the time, to found their own, Grand Royal.
As far as I know, Rubin never appeared onstage with Cash, but he didn’t exactly stay in the background either. Sylvie Simmons’s liner notes for Unearthed come close to presenting the set as a collaboration between artistic equals. “This is the story of what happened when the man with the beard met the Man in Black,” she writes, and then quotes Cash’s former manager as saying to Rubin, “You could see the sparks flying between you two. There was such an immediate, powerful connection.” Rubin elaborates, “It felt like we connected on some level other than talk.” Cash was intimately involved in the creation of Unearthed, and it’s clear he was grateful to Rubin and willing to share the glory. But his comment on the epic meeting of minds is noticeably more reserved: “You know, I’d dealt with the long-haired element before, and it didn’t bother me at all. I find great beauty in men with perfectly trained beards and groomed faces–or grooved faces, or whatever it is.”
The manner in which Rubin revitalized Cash’s career was also true to form. He marketed him the same way he marketed rap and metal acts–by presenting him as a dangerous outsider, a loner, an outlaw. Gone was the Johnny Cash whose biggest hits were jokey novelty records like “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece at a Time.” In his place, to quote the liner notes again, was “a dark troubadour with a troubled past who had sinned and been redeemed.” The video for the opening song on American Recordings, the murder ballad “Delia’s Gone,” featured Cash killing model Kate Moss. Ten years earlier “the dark troubadour” had worn a superhero costume in the video for “Chicken in Black.”
Obviously, Rubin didn’t invent the dangerous-loner image for Cash, who had been singing about shooting people since the 50s. American’s promotional machine simply emphasized this aspect of his persona, practically to the exclusion of all others. Despite this manipulation of his persona, Cash continued to record goofy stuff alongside the gloom-and-doom numbers. “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” from American Recordings, “Mean-Eyed Cat” from Unchained, and “I’m Leaving Now,” a heavenly duet with Merle Haggard on Solitary Man, are all glorious examples of Cash’s lighter side. Not one of them shows up on Unearthed’s fifth disc, a “best-of” compilation tilted heavily towards more solemn numbers–“Delia’s Gone,” “Hurt,” “I Hung My Head,” and the annoying “Bird on a Wire” (Cash’s gravitas only highlights the idiocy of Leonard Cohen’s clumsy ramblings). You have to listen to the other four discs to find songs like “Chattanooga Sugar Babe,” a jovial goof about substance abuse, and “Two-Timin’ Mama,” the track that comes closest to evoking the sound of Cash’s legendary Sun sides.
Rubin can’t be faulted for noticing that hipsters think it’s cooler to kill people than to laugh, and he deserves credit for giving Cash a decent marketing budget, something the singer had been denied for years. But he goes too far in presenting Cash’s commercial resurrection as a comprehensive artistic rebirth. Unearthed’s liner notes quote Rubin as saying he was motivated to sign Cash because he’d “been thinking about who was really great but not making really great records.” He goes on to talk about the challenge of getting the singer to see each recording date as special, rather than as scut work for yet another album.
The obvious implication is that the records Cash was making at Mercury before coming to American were prefab crap. On the contrary, they’re great–not every cut, of course, but the hit-to-miss ratio isn’t significantly lower than on the American albums, and the best tracks are as good as anything he ever did. Most of this material was produced by Cash’s longtime friend Jack Clement. The mood is relaxed and the arrangements are inventive. Perhaps the best album of the bunch is 1988’s Water From the Wells of Home, a duet-heavy set with guest appearances by Paul McCartney, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., Roy Acuff, Carlene Carter, and the Everly Brothers, among others. There are also gems to be found on 1991’s Mystery of Life, including the surreal “Beans for Breakfast”: “The house burned down from the fire that I built in my closet by mistake after taking all those pills,” sings Cash matter-of-factly, “but I got out safe in my Duckhead overalls.”
Significantly, Cash never spoke a word against the records he made at Mercury. His only complaint was that the label didn’t promote them.
Viewed in this context, the striking thing about Unearthed is how much of a piece it seems with the rest of Cash’s oeuvre. A lot of the strengths supposedly unique to Cash’s American years–the eclectic song selection, the challenging duet partners, the varied settings–were there all along. This was a man, after all, who began as a rockabilly performer in the Carl Perkins mode, played the Newport Folk Festival in ’64, was associated with the outlaw country movement in the 70s, and helped launch the bluegrass revival of the 80s by appearing on Emmylou Harris’s seminal Roses in the Snow. Along the way he recorded songs by Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. He made concept albums, wrote protest songs, hosted a network variety show, and wrote a novel about the life of Saint Paul, The Man in White.
Cash, in other words, was always experimenting, an aspect of his work the first four discs put center stage. It’s an odds-and-sods collection, so not everything works: two tracks made with a mediocre blues band are a mess, Joe Strummer sounds badly outclassed in their duet on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and the austere renderings of low-church hymns on disc four get wearisome with repeated listenings. But that still leaves a lot of impressive music.
The first disc in particular reaffirms what a great idea it was for Cash to record alone with his guitar. Billy Joe Shaver’s wistfully hopeful “Old Chunk of Coal” and Cash’s own love letter to his wife, “Flesh and Blood,” are particularly fine. The baroque cover of Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” (embellished with mellotron) that opens the second disc is also pretty great. Getting Cash together with Nick Cave was an obvious move, but it works wonderfully. (Cave almost upstages Cash with the touch of gothic glee he brings to their duet, “Cindy.”) My absolute favorite track, though, is the brief rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” The song is a fusty piece of schmaltz that I’ve never liked, but Cash’s bleak quaver turns it into an agony of grief and loss.
Grief and loss are aspects of Cash’s art foremost in people’s minds right now, due to his long illness, the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, and his own demise–not to mention the success of Mark Romanek’s funereal video for “Hurt.” To me, though, the fact that Cash was able to change, learn, and take risks with his life and art for more than 40 years is far from sad. One of those risks was to record with Rubin, who introduced him to new repertoire, new collaborators, new listeners, and new approaches to recording. But I have no doubt that if Cash had never taken that particular chance, he would have taken another one. Even had the Man in Black never met the man with the beard, Cash’s story would still be one of the happiest in American music.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martyn Atkins.