Five discs that bear witness to the prolific and powerful final days of a monumental musical talent
[a]Johnny Cash[/a]’s last four albums are properly regarded as a masterful body of work. But even before them, his position as a towering American icon was assured.
For two generations, knocking on 40 years, his shadow fell across the
American cultural landscape like a silhouette of the Rocky Mountains. The outlaw, the rumbling voice of truth, the original punk determined to kick against expectations and find his own way – he made country more than a red-neck ghetto, gave rock and roll a mean side and became a profound influence on the sound and roots of [a]Clash[/a], U2, [a]Nick Cave[/a], [a]Beck[/a], [a]White Stripes[/a] even on of the fugitive status of [a]Eminem[/a].
When hip-hop/metal uber producer Rick Rubin came on board in 1993 and kick-started the final fertile American Recordings period, it was a revelation for many, but in reality simply helped to reinforce what was already known.
‘Unearthed’ digs into the American Recordings vault coming up with 79 tracks in all – 64 previously unheard. Even a scant run through this voluminous collection leaves you with the impression that it’s just scratching the surface of what [a]Johnny Cash[/a] and Rubin created. The great moments here are legion, they sneak up and explode like glorious potassium flares.
Take the old standard, ‘Cindy’, which becomes a rockabilly bullet when [a]Johnny Cash[/a] duets with [a]Nick Cave[/a], or ‘Salty Dog’, a bawdy, mucky piece of cheek, or the faithful and peerless cover of [a]Neil Young[/a]’s ‘Heart Of Gold’.
Lesser songs that have had the soul squeezed out of them by a generation of buskers get new wings. [a]Johnny Cash[/a], helped along by the late [a]Joe Strummer[/a], reworks [a]Bob Marley[/a]’s greatly over-rated ‘Redemption Song’. The pair of old punks give the track a life and dignity that recalls [a]Johnny Cash[/a] and [a]Bob Marley[/a] on ‘Girl From The North Country’ from [a]Bob Marley[/a]’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ album.
Even when [a]Johnny Cash[/a] does cheese, he does it like no-one else. In his hands ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is a powerful lament on wronged love and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ has a funereal majesty that carries it well beyond a hammy terrace anthem.
[a]Johnny Cash[/a] fell seriously ill in 1996 around the time of ‘Unchained’. His
Shy-Drager’s Syndrome had been misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease and he was, said Rick Rubin, confused and angry. But he didn’t stop recording.
Though frail and emotionally ripped, he went to the studio every day and worked until he was completely spent. These results are found on disc four, ‘My Mother’s Hymn Book’, his reworking of the spirituals he grew up with. And of everything on this collection, these tracks are the most potent. He takes the songs made popular by gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson and The Prisonaires and strips their majesty back to just himself and an acoustic guitar. Every track burns with the righteous anger of a man struggling with his faith and trying to understand what God has done to him.
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They let you hear just how fundamental Rick Rubin’s guiding hand became in [a]Johnny Cash[/a]’s four final albums. Rubin understood that [a]Johnny Cash[/a]’s power came from simplicity, allowing the biblical truth of the voice to soar above any production.
Take the ‘The Man Comes Around’, the finest song [a]Johnny Cash[/a] wrote in 20 years. On ‘Redemption Songs’, the third CD in this collection, a version is recorded with a full band and it canters jauntily along with an old-style [a]Johnny Cash[/a] rhythm. But Rubin heard the reality of the song and stripped it back to the version heard on [a]Johnny Cash[/a]’s final album, making it sparse and telling and leaving [a]Johnny Cash[/a] sounding like an Old Testament prophet.
Rubin, with terrific understatement, said he and [a]Johnny Cash[/a] had a “strong
connection”. On the basis of the American Recordings albums and this collection history will judge theirs as one of the most important
partnerships in music.
But even this doesn’t mark the end. Following the death of [a]Johnny Cash[/a]’s wife and soul-mate June Carter in May, he threw himself into his work. He started recording a gospel album, but not the upbeat revivalist gospel that is featured here – blues-shouting numbers like ‘No Grave’s Gonna Hold My Body Down’. ‘The Black Gospel Album’ will come some time next year.
But that’s next year – for now, this is a beautiful collection to savour and cherish. Not so much a collection as a testament as to why [a]Johnny Cash[/a] stands beside [a]Bob Dylan[/a] and [a]Elvis Presley[/a] as the most influential voices in rock and roll.