Nashville Or Bust, Week 2: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings

Nashville Or Bust, Week 2: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings

 

If you went to college in the mid-’90s, chances are good that you probably spent some time with classmates who thought country was the official music of ignorant, racist hillbillies, yet clung to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings as proof of their open-mindedness. Johnny Cash was the country icon for people who didn’t like country. He belonged to everyone: Punks, Christians, folkies, rebels, convicts, alt-rockers, patriots, depressives, pill-poppers, problem drinkers, rednecks, progressives, hippies, and hillbillies could all claim Cash as their own. He was timeless, a man of constant sorrow. He was one of pop culture’s sanctified sufferers, a man who died a little for our sins and his own in song after song.

But in the early ’90s, Cash was a lost man. His career was in a seemingly permanent state of freefall. Decades of drug abuse and hard living had ravaged his body. A towering American icon was reduced to performing before half-empty houses at the Wayne Newton Theater in Branson, Missouri.

Then a habitually black-clad, Rasputin-bearded mogul named Rick Rubin threw his hero a lifeline by signing Cash to his American Recordings label. As 30 Rock’s Beeper King has taught us, technology is cyclical. So is music. Cash’s time had come and gone, then come and gone again. Rubin reckoned he was due for a comeback.

Signing Cash as a flagship artist was a brilliant business move and a creative masterstroke. Even if Cash didn’t sell a single album, having an artist of his stature lent Rubin’s label considerable prestige. In a colossal act of chutzpah, Rubin gave a seminal album from a giant of American music the same name as his record label. That would be a little like me signing Madlib, MF DOOM, Little Brother, and Devin The Dude to my make-pretend record label, then “suggesting” that they all title their albums Nathan Rabincordings.

The country establishment had long ago dismissed Cash as a has-been, but Rubin was happy to take him on as a reclamation project. On American Recordings, Rubin had the good sense to let Cash be Cash. On Cash’s American Recordings debut, Rubinstripped the Man In Black’s sound down to its essence—a man, a guitar, and a voice aching with Old Testament authority—and added a savvy batch of songs from some unlikely sources (Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Cash’s former stepson-in-law Nick Lowe, Loudon Wainwright III).

Recordings’ spare vibe reflected the then-current vogue for authenticity. What could be more authentic than Johnny Cash singing about trains and death and trifling women, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar? Recordings came out the same year as seminal Unplugged releases from Nirvana and Tony Bennett. Suddenly it was considered cool for the young people to listen to acoustic music performed by people old enough to be their grandpas. At least that was the marketing spin.

Recordings immediately establishes Cash’s outlaw credentials with “Delia’s Gone,” a stark, darkly funny murder ballad sung and played in an incongruously jaunty fashion. Its juxtaposition of the grim and the unexpectedly cheerful suggests a mourner wearing a sporty red scarf. In a disturbingly matter-of-fact fashion, Cash recounts tying up and shooting a woman who was “low-down and trifling” as well as “cold and mean.”

The song finds Cash simultaneously channeling his younger, wilder self (he first recorded it in 1962) and “To Kill A Hooker”-era NWA when he sings that Delia possesses the “kind of evil” that makes him want “to grab his submachine,” though Cash amusingly pronounces it “sub-mo-sheen.” “Delia’s Gone” throws down the gauntlet, positing Cash as an O.O.G., the Original Original Gangsta.

With Recordings, Rubin smartly matches Cash with the songs of complementary icons like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Cohen’s music is a fascinating, maddening mix of profundity, poetry, and pretension, but Cash’s aching rendition of “Bird On A Wire” strips the song of pretension and fills it with an aching sense of yearning.

Cash’s rumbling baritone brings an Old Testament gravity to songs like Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me” and “Redemption.” He imbues lines like “The beast in me has learned to live with pain” with the scars of decades of torment, self-inflicted and otherwise. Pain is a constant in Cash’s work; to live is to suffer.

On Recordings, Cash never reaches for effect. What he doesn’t sing is as powerful as what he does. On the moody Vietnam ballad “Drive On,” for example, Cash sings from the perspective of a veteran haunted by demons and a family that can’t imagine what he’s been through. It’s a song about warfare, devoid of false heroism and self-pity. “It was a slow walk and a sad rain / and no one tried to be John Wayne / I came home but Tex did not / And I can’t talk about the hit he got,” Cash sings plaintively, hinting at unimaginable horrors.

After a relatively somber assortment of songs about Jesus, suffering, murder, and trains, Recordings ends on a comic note with a cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” Even Cash’s funny songs are filled with angst. “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” tells of a modern-day Job who sheds nary a tear as his life goes flamboyantly to hell: “His dog was run over, his wife up and left him / After that, he got sacked from his job / Lost his arm in the war, was laughed at by a whore / But still not a sniffle or sob,” Cash deadpans, in a tone more empathetic than mocking. Cash identifies with the song’s cursed subject. He understands the beauty of understatement; the song is funny in large part because Cash never seems to be going for laughs.

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Finally, the man’s spirit is broken in prison, and he cries and cries until he dies of dehydration, his death unleashing a wave of devastation on everyone who tormented him during his life. It’s an upside-down happy ending in which earthly torment leads to eternal happiness, and it’s as a wonderfully cathartic way to end the album. The song is marred somewhat by the giggling and hooting of the live audience at the Viper Room. Yes, the Viper Room. To make the album even more palatable to the young people of 1994, with their flannel shirts and grunge-rock mosh-pit dancing and O.K. Soda and trendy heroin addictions, Rubin recorded two of the tracks live at Johnny Depp’s nightclub, and had Anton Corbijn direct an artsy video with Kate Moss as Delia. Incidentally, on one of the YouTube pages for the video, a top comment from “Duke1839” reads, “He shouldn’t have shot that chick.” If only Cash himself were capable of such insight.

American Recordings brought Cash roaring back to life critically and commercially as an American prophet of gloom and doom. Cash shakes off Recordings’ somber air on Unchained, the second and most rocking installment of the American series, thanks to Rubin recruiting Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as Cash’s backing band.

The disc gets off to a wonderfully woozy start with a trippy cover of Beck’s “Rowboat.” Cash transforms everything he sings, but damned if a whole lot of Beck doesn’t slip into the song’s DNA in Cash’s laconic, stoned phrasing. The pairing of Cash and Beck, two shape-shifting genre-hoppers from opposite sides of a generational divide, might seem like a cheap, Rubin-engineered stunt, but on “Rowboat,” it feels weirdly organic and organically weird.

It’s followed by a series of uptempo ravers where Cash sounds like he’s having a blast: a freewheeling “Mean Eyed Cat,” “Country Boy,” a defiant “Never Picked Cotton.” Christ, even “Sea Of Heartbreak” is toe-tapping fun. Speaking of Christ, it would not be a Johnny Cash album without a whole lot of testifying, and Unchained is no exception: JC gives the proverbial mad props to the other JC on “Spiritual,” “A Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” and “Meet Me In Heaven.”

Considering the huge role Petty and Heartbreaker compatriots play here, it’s poetically apt that the album’s emotional centerpiece is a majestic cover of Petty’s “Southern Accents.” Like “Never Picked Cotton,” it’s a song about a man on the fringes of society struggling to maintain his dignity and sense of self in a world intent on breaking him.

The album closes with an ecstatic version of “I’ve Been Everywhere” that transforms the chugga-chugga locomotive rhythms of Cash’s legendary Tennessee Two (and later Three) backing band into a goddamned bullet train to the future. Cash sounds healthy, alive, and vital in a way he never would again.

I know CDs are on their way out, but it’s worth picking up Recordings just for Cash’s wonderful liner notes, which provide a fascinating, abstract window into his psyche. They begin with a paragraph about mustard, then reflect on Beck’s enigmatic imagery before segueing into the beginning of Cash’s romance with June Carter Cash. Reflecting back on his hellcat days with poetic concision, Cash writes “Sometimes at night. When I hear the wind. I wish I was crazy again.” Don’t we all, brother, don’t we all.

The next paragraph says just about everything about Cash’s aesthetic: “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God. [Unchained’s] “Rusty Cage” must fit into some of these categories.”

In the liner notes, Cash approvingly quotes the philosophy his onetime Sun labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis had in regard to covers: “If I can’t make these songs my own they don’t belong.” Cash lives up to that creed on American Recordings and Unchained, but on the last three entries in the American Recordings series, the pairing of Cash with classic and alt-rock hits of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today sometimes feels a little formulaic.

Cash embodied a fascinating blend of strength and vulnerability. He was a strong man who shared his weaknesses with the world. But after he was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy in the late ’90s and was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1998, his frailty and sickness became more apparent with each release. The last entry in the series, 2003’s American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously, and Cash was so sick during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around that part of it was recorded in the tunnel of white light between heaven and Earth. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the Grim Reaper on backing vocals.

Like the rest of Cash’s life and career, these last three albums are deeply inspirational but tragic, the final testaments of a man forthrightly staring down death and embracing the music and faith that has long been his salvation. Thanks to a broken jaw that never healed correctly, singing became extraordinarily painful for Cash. The thing that kept him alive and gave his life direction and purpose also caused him endless suffering.

The papery frailty of Cash’s voice lends a heartbreaking pathos to 2000’s American III: Solitary Man. On U2’s “One,” Cash never attempts to replicate Bono’s vocal gymnastics, instead walking through the song in a half-singing, half-talking manner only a whisper away from spoken-word. His phrasing and breathing are careful; it’s as if he has a finite number of notes left and must use them with the utmost care.

The shadow of death hangs heavy over Solitary Man. It’s hard not to interpret standout tracks like Will Oldham’s “I See A Darkness” and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” as songs about Cash’s own impending death. “The Mercy Seat” is among the most powerful songs in the series, a hypnotic musical short story that doubles as a master class in Cash’s favorite themes. In it, Cash sings from the perspective of a condemned man on death row viewing his impending death through the prism of Christ’s crucifixion. The song begins slowly with Cash’s folksy talk-singing and gentle acoustic strumming, but it builds in intensity and emotion as Benmont Tench’s ominous piano enters the mix and death looms nearer and nearer, until finally electricity courses through the narrator’s body and his professions of innocence give way to a weary confession of guilt.

By 2000, Cash was as much legend as man. He was a human encyclopedia of music whose experiences and frame of reference stretched from the Great Depression and the early days of radio to a millennium few could have imagined he’d see, even in a weakened and diminished state. In spite of a few upbeat numbers like “Nobody,” “Country Trash,” and “I’m Leaving Now” (a very welcome duet with Merle Haggard), Solitary Man works best as a somber mood piece, an album of hushed intensity that lingers somewhere between the manic energy of Unchained and the world-weariness of the albums to follow.

If “Delia’s Gone” posited Cash as an O.O.G., When The Man Comes Around’s “Hurt” and “Personal Jesus” re-imagine Cash as an Original Goth. “Hurt” became an unlikely milestone in Cash’s career, thanks to a heartbreaking Mark Romanek video. The video has the same theme as Cash’s final albums: a deeply spiritual man coming to terms with his mortality. “Hurt” is a good song, perhaps the best thing Reznor has ever done, but Cash makes it great. He transforms a bratty adolescent’s melodramatic howl of self-laceration into a dying man’s profound existential reckoning.

In the special features for the Mark Romanek’s Directors Label DVD, Bono says Cash was put on Earth to sing “Hurt,” which is exactly the sort of pompous jackassy thing Bono would say. Here’s a suggestion, Bono: Shut your fucking mouth when you aren’t singing, or, you know, saving Africa and shit.

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Cash is much less successful with “Personal Jesus.” Like “Desperado,” it’s a song unworthy of him. Cash had been intimately associated with the public, sacred Jesus for too long for “Personal Jesus” not to feel vaguely heretical. The song fatally lacks the fire-and-brimstone intensity of the awesome opening/title track, a ferocious journey through Judgment Day and Christ’s return. It’s a song of awe and terror, wonder and darkness, rapture and madness. How great is “The Man Comes Around”? When used during a key scene in My Best Friend’s Girl,it even manages to make Dane fucking Cook seem badass for a few moments.

Much of IV is paced like a funeral dirge—“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “In My Life,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Danny Boy”—but Cash rediscovers his inner hellcat on the raucous “Sam Hall.” On “I Hung My Head,” Cash transforms an undistinguished late-period Sting song (is there any other kind?) into a powerful meditation on guilt, fate, repentance, and chance. Listening to Sting’s version after living with Cash’s for weeks is like watching a glorious butterfly turn back into a runty little caterpillar.

When The Man Comes Around closes with an elegiac version of “We’ll Meet Again,” a song I will forever associate with mushroom clouds and global apocalypse, thanks to Dr. Strangelove. Only this time it isn’t the world ending, but the life of a great man. On “We’ll Meet Again,” The Whole Cash Gang choir kicks in to wish Johnny Cash well in his climactic journey from this world to the next. They’ll meet again not in this corrupt world, but in Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Cash was cold-chilling with baby Jesus and the rest of his heavenly entourage by the time American Recordings V was released on July 4, 2006. (The release date undoubtedly would have pleased the patriot in Cash; the “posthumous” part, not so much.) The American Recordings series travels a harrowing arc that begins with Cash’s career being resuscitated and ends with him warbling songs of death and transcendence from beyond the grave.

Like the original American Recordings, V is as much folk as country. It’s an album of infinite sadness that takes its cues from the humility of the final lyrics of “Help Me,” its first track: “With a humble heart on bended knee, I’m begging you please for help.” The rebellion and defiance that popped up as late in the series as “Sam Hall” have been replaced by acceptance and grace.

Cash is so sick and frail throughout Highways that listening to the album can be like watching Nicholas Ray die a slow death in the Wim Wenders documentary Lightning Over Water. Highways feels purer and more organic than IV:Cash is singing about subjects near and dear to his heart instead of rummaging randomly through the Eagles or Depeche Mode songbook. Cash leaves such an indelible stamp on “If You Could Read My Mind” that I had to check out Gordon Lightfoot’s insufferable original version to realize what a terrible song it is in anyone else’s hands.

The album and series ends perfectly with “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now,” a song that eloquently explores the yearning for the sweet release of death and the rewards of heaven that permeate Cash’s discography. By the time Highways was released, Cash was freed forever from the prison of self and this world of temptation and sin.

Rumors persist of a second posthumous release in the form of an American Recordings VI consisting of unreleased tracks. Hey, if 2Pac can pump out a posthumous album a week, why should Cash be denied one last ghostly ramble?

Cash’s journey ends where mine begins, though I’ll be writing extensively about the rest of his life and career next week. I decided to write about American Recordings because it seemed like a natural place to begin, and because writing about five albums seemed manageable and borderline easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This entry kicked my ass, stretching on for days and days and days.

When you do a project this immersive, it has a funny way of getting under your skin. When Scott and I were writing the Mickey Rourke Primer with an assist from Leonard a while back, the bathing-averse thespian took up valuable real estate in my subconscious. It was the same with Cash. I even started dreaming about Cash’s death, though that might say more about the brain-scrambling qualities of sleep-aid Trazedone than it does about the demands this series has been making on my mind-grapes.

And I’m not even finished with Cash yet. Next week I’ll cover Cash’s pre-American Recordings career, as well as the deliciously misguided Snoop Dogg-produced recent Johnny Cash Remixed project. Reading in Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash: The Biography about the final days of Cash’s life as he tried to make music and carry on in the absence of his soulmate June Carter while essentially blind and wheelchair-bound lent an additional element of sadness to a series already rife with tragedy.

So it’ll be a relief to move on to the feisty hellraiser stage of Cash’s career. After devoting so much time and cyber-ink to Cash’s endless dance with death, I very much look forward to writing about his life as well.