Johnny Cash spent significant portions of his life working on religious material, or movies, or even singing at Billy Graham crusades that urged the unwashed masses to be spiritually reborn. But if there was a day that Cash's legacy got born again, it was April 26, 1994 — the release date for "American Recordings," the first of a series of revitalizing albums Cash made with producer Rick Rubin, and a project that turned millions of Generation X-ers into unlikely evangelists for J.C.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the landmark recording, Yahoo Music spoke with Rubin about that first collaboration, and how he "recognized how special and singular the chance to work with Johnny was," as has the world.
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Rubin, now as well known for his acoustically based recordings as anything else, was 20 years ago recognized primarily as a "rap guy" who'd built his empire on hip-hop and metal. And yet he was the perfect John the Baptist to bring Cash back to relevance. Never mind that Rubin's unusual appearance made him look like he, too, might have spent 40 days and nights in the desert. Cash called him "the ultimate hippie, bald on top, but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed and clothes that would have done a wino proud."
When they met up in 1993, Cash "loved performing," still, Rubin tells Yahoo. But putting down tracks? "I think he believed his recording career was essentially over, and he believed people weren't interested in hearing new music from him." And for all intents and purposes, Cash was dead right about his potency as a contemporary artist being about as moribund as that guy he'd supposedly shot in Reno.
No album he'd made since 1971's "Man in Black" had really clicked with the public. He'd already had one comeback in his career, in the late '60s, when the "Folsom Prison" album, "A Boy Named Sue," and his network TV series demonstrated he could pull off a series of revivifying surprises. But while Cash had already proven F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong about there being no second acts in American lives, few would have believed the entertainer had a shot at a third one. Cash had been ignominiously dropped from Columbia Records in 1986. After moving on to Mercury, he'd made some stabs at increased relevancy, cutting tunes by Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe, and Elvis Costello, but something about even these recordings didn't quite click. And the Man in Black was still having to live down misguided contrivances like his 1984 comedy single "The Chicken in Black."
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In '93, Cash had just signed a deal to play dozens of dates a year in the retirement villa known as Branson, Missouri… as Wayne Newton's fill-in. So when Rubin called up, Cash wasn't about to nix the meeting, even if it was with a fellow most celebrated as a Slayer enabler and the co-architect of "You've Got to Fight for Your Right to Party."
"He was open and intrigued that anyone was interested enough in him as an artist to want to record him," says Rubin. The producer's initial proposal was "just to get together and listen to songs together, and I asked him to play me songs he loves or ones he remembered from childhood." The songs Cash brought in included "Delia's Gone," which would make a much bigger splash as a remake than it did when he'd first recorded it in the early '60s, and "Drive On," a song he'd written during his Mercury period but set aside because he felt it was too good to be wasted on an album that would go nowhere.
Rubin brought some songs to the table, too, with no fowl anthems in sight. His choices included Tom Waits's "Down There by the Train," and, most notoriously, "Thirteen," by metalhead Glenn Danzig, whose spiritual inclinations were not exactly in line with Cash's. The Man in Black didn't balk. On this initial album as well as the subsequent ones they made together, "We always had a blend," Rubin says. "He would write a new song or two if he had anything new that spoke to him, and we would look at covers either from modern writers or classic country writers. As long as the story was believable from Johnny. It was always about the songs. It didn't matter who wrote them, just how the words sounded when Johnny sang them and the believability."
But if Cash had recently had trouble making covers of songs from Springsteen's "Nebraska" sound believable in his voice — which should have been a natural for him — how was he going to pull off Danzig? The answer was doing an all-solo-acoustic album, even if that was not at all the plan going in. He and Rubin laid down demos in the living room of the producer's house right before Cash's not-so-triumphant debut in Branson. Then, while the singer was away, Rubin brought in musicians like Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers to augment Cash's demo vocals. And something wasn't right. "We recorded with several different bands, but ultimately the stripped-down versions seems to be the most impactful and truthful," says Rubin.
Although they kept recording together, almost all of the album comprised takes from those first few days together in Rubin's living room. The trick, the producer felt, was that Cash hadn't thought he was laying down anything for posterity at the time. And somehow that led to… serious posterity.
They also added a version of the Vietnam-themed "Drive On" that Cash had recorded at his cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee. as an equipment test. That naturalism thing again. The remaining two tracks were live tunes cut at an exclusive showcase Rubin had set up at the then-new Viper Room in West Hollywood in December 1993, where he was introduced by Johnny Depp to a tiny but star-studded crowd.
Upon its release, "American Recordings" was immediately hailed as a return to form… or better. "His voice is the best it has sounded in more than 30 years," lauded Rolling Stone, which added that "every quaver, every shift in volume, every catch in a line resonates like a private apocalypse." Gushed Billboard: "Never has the man in black produced a work of such brilliance as this one." The Los Angeles Times compared it to Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" as a successful and meaningful piece of knowing mid-career self-mythologizing.
Suddenly, he was the cool kid in town. Longtime U2 director Anton Corbijn shot a video for "Delia's Gone" that had Cash shoveling dirt onto the corpse of Kate Moss. CMT wouldn't play it… but sister network MTV did. (Beavis and Butt-head even had their way with it.) Rockers loved what the country music industry had left behind, as Cash was booked to play before 50,000 young people at England's Glastonbury Festival, and set up on gigs in L.A. and Seattle where Beck and the Screaming Trees opened for him. South by Southwest enlisted him as the conference's keynote speaker.
Yet Cash resisted entreaties to totally go the hipster route. He still kept his commitments in Branson, still did Billy Graham crusades, and still devoted most of his shows to the oldies and/or duets with wife June Carter Cash, despite the belief of some in his camp that he should focus on solo acoustic shows affirming his new direction. That more show-bizzy side of his career came to an end in 1997, when illness forced him to give up touring.
But after "American Recordings" won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1995, Cash kept working with Rubin until his death in 2003. Together they came up with what would turn out to be six "American"-branded albums, not including a boxed set with copious amounts of outtakes. "I was worried that I had blown everything by not treating my music seriously enough for all those years," Cash told biographer Robert Hilburn. "I was even starting to think that no one would care about it after I was gone. But Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all… and even add to it. I vowed not to let it slip away again."
The second album Cash and Rubin did together, 1996's "Unchained," broke the mold of the first one, using Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as a backing band on an effort highlighted by a cover of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage." The albums that followed after that rocking sophomore collaboration hewed closer to the spare model of the first one, while using additional instrumentation. The culmination, of course, was the single and video of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which gave the world a shocking but galvanizing glimpse of Cash in physical decline the year before his death.
"If you listen to all of the albums in a row," says Rubin, "we hear both his physical deterioration, and along with that, deeper depths of emotion in the performances. He always felt that his voice was the thing he could always rely on. When that stopped being the case, he had to find new ways to get across the material and some of those moments are vey emotional. I find myself tearing up when hearing the later albums."
It wasn't a given at the time that this would turn out to be a series that would cement Cash's legacy. June thought the idea of working with Rubin was "absurd," according to Hilburn's recent Cash biography. And Cash himself said of Rubin's minimalistic approach: "There was nothing to hide behind, and that was scary."
Rosanne Cash is among the biggest fans of that series of albums, for myriad reasons. Her dad "was completely re-energized by this relationship" with Rubin, she said in Graeme Thomson's book "The Resurrection of Johnny Cash." "It was as if two long lost brothers had found each other. They really loved each other and connected in a really deep way… I was tremendously relieved, I have to tell you. It was like: 'Somebody is going to take care of dad, somebody who really gets him.' I stopped worrying about him so much after he met Rick."
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"American Recordings" has a legacy that extends beyond Cash's. Rubin was able to get this project done because he owned the label of the same name as the first album. But suddenly other labels were cottoning to the idea of hot du jour producers reviving the careers of elder statesmen. You see the happy fallout in everything from Jack White's production of Loretta Lynn to T Bone Burnett's upcoming album with Jerry Lee Lewis.
Says Rubin: "This is one of best things that came from my work with Johnny… other 'grown-up' artists see it's possible to be relevant again as record makers and make the effort to make great music."