The story of American popular music contains several moments when a career that has gone south is dramatically resurrected before an awed and grateful public. Sometimes the moment is brief, such as Elvis’s appearance on NBC’s Christmastime special in 1968, or it can last for years, like the Dylan revival that began with Time Out of Mind and shows no sign of ebbing. Johnny Cash’s comeback, heralded by American Recordings and lasting for the final decade of his life, was even more unexpected than Elvis’s or Dylan’s. Cash had been dropped from the roster of Columbia Records and was playing gigs at North Dakota rodeos when he met rap producer Rick Rubin near the end of 1993. Although he knew very little about either Cash or country music, Rubin signed him to the fledgling American Recordings label. The partnership revitalized Cash, restoring his powers as an interpreter of country and pop, won several awards and brought the 1990s generation into his listenership.
After his death this past September, American Recordings released Cash Unearthed, a boxed set that gathers outtakes from Cash’s four studio albums with Rubin (American Recordings, Unchained, Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around), a disc of gospel hymns performed solo by Cash on acoustic guitar and a fifteen-song compilation titled Best of Cash on American. In keeping with the rest of his catalogue, the set contains songs of murder, faith, trains, the open road and lost love, by country forebears such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family as well as Beck, ex-grunge rocker Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden fame) and other “alternative” songwriters. It is a deep and often puzzling lexicon, with no peer in recent American music, and one that makes for a pleasantly coherent end to a wild and uneven career.
In the beginning, Rubin simplified the Cash sound, stripping it of the studio gimmickry and melodramatic production that marred most of his releases in the late 1970s and ’80s. Rubin told him: “You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone and sing me the songs you love. Just sing me everything you want to record.” They recorded over a hundred songs at these first sessions. In that time Rubin also played Cash some of his favorite songs, by artists like Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig. Cash responded to this material eagerly–“song collecting is something I’ve always been interested in.” The songs on American Recordings revisit the dark and comic themes long associated with Cash, all drawn from sources that seem forbiddingly incongruent. The album’s success turned out to be a powerful statement on the genealogy of recorded music as much as a sign of Cash’s return to relevance and credibility.
The strange coupling of sources became a sort of trademark. On American IV: The Man Comes Around, the most memorable performances are of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” a duet with Nick Cave on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the Tin Pan Alley standard “We’ll Meet Again” and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” and “Tear Stained Letter.” It is clear that Rubin, who is best known for working with the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers and LL Cool J, had an agenda: to market Cash as the original outlaw rocker and, by extension, as one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap. But it is a tribute to Cash’s vocal power and natural musical talents that so many of these performances impart a convincing aura of originality. His lush, pliable baritone makes itself at home in both Soundgarden and Jimmie Rodgers. “Nobody’s song is safe out there from me,” Cash said. “I go through ’em all, picking and gleaning.” He reworks many of his own singles as well, from as far back as 1957’s “Give My Love to Rose,” and several tracks on Unearthed acknowledge Cash’s contemporaries–Nashville writers like Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson, fellow Sun Records alumni Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. There is a lovely nod to George Jones in a performance of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Listening to the eight discs Cash recorded for the American Recordings label, one is reminded of the great song-gathering projects of the last century, Plantation Songs, the Anthology of American Folk Music and so forth. Unearthed is an anthology in its own right, mostly of the postwar white American song literature, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Dolly Parton to Neil Young.