Later this year, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label will release a collection of Johnny Cash songs including a collaboration between the legendary country singer and one of his greatest fans, the Clash’s Joe Strummer. The pair’s version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” will serve as a poignant reminder of why Cash, who died Friday at age 71, was so revered by his fellow musicians — if not always by a music industry that had a hard time figuring him out.
“In a garden full of weeds,” explained U2’s Bono, Cash was “the oak tree.”
Cash loved playing with younger artists who shared his recognition that a song ought to come with an edge — and maybe even a little politics. His collaborations with Bob Dylan, U2 and Strummer, and the delight with which he covered songs by Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, Beck, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, made it impossible to slot Cash into the narrow categories where contemporary radio programmers consign artists. “He’s an outsider, never been part of a trend,” Rubin said of Cash.
In his remarkable 1997 autobiography, Cash reflected on a career that began with hit singles but eventually saw him searching for a proper record label — a search that ended only when Rubin, a groundbreaking rock and rap producer, signed him to American Recordings and produced four starkly brilliant albums. When people wondered why a country singer was on his label, Rubin said, “A rock star is a musical outlaw and that’s Johnny.”
Cash embraced that outlaw image, singing in his signature song, “Man in Black”:
“Well you wonder why I always dress in black/Why you never see bright colors on my back/And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone/Well there’s a reason for the things that I have on/I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
Later in the song, he referenced the war in Vietnam, singing: “I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been/Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.”
Cash took sides in his own songs, and in the songs he chose to sing. And he preferred the side of those imprisoned by the law — and by economics. Cash’s obituaries are quick to quote the lines at the start of his classic song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” which go: