The stand out time of his career for me was definitely his time working with Rick Rubin at American Recordings. As I'm writing this I'm listening to "Unearthed", a compilation of outtakes and unused material from his time there, which you can listen to here. All of which is pure gold, and encapsulates everything that was great about his stint at American: brilliant songs (either material Rubin requested from other writers specifically for Cash, classic country songs that endure the test of time, or re-interpretations of songs Johnny had recorded previously) made with all the best musicians and sang with gusto, maturity and passion by Cash. My favourites include versions of "If I Give My Soul", "Heart Of Gold" (with John Frusciante
on guitar) and "Redemption Song" (the latter featuring none other than Joe Strummer!).
I'm sure lots of you are aware of his infamous version of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. That song is taken from "American IV: The Man Comes Around", and it could well be the album most people know him for. The songs he recorded for that album were perhaps the most populist and familiar to people - amongst them were versions of Dame Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again", Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and The Beatles' "In My Life". This was the first album of his I came across, and is probably one of my favourite album's ever. It wasn't long before I looked into the other albums in the series.
A bit of background: in the early 90s, Cash's career seemed on it's last legs. He left Mercury Records in 1991, after a four year stint that left him so unhappy, he took to sabotaging his own reputation with stuff like this so that his contract wouldn't be renewed. But come 1994, Rick Rubin, who at the time was most known for co-founding Def Jam records and producing for the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, was offering Cash a deal on his newly founded American Recordings label. While he was a little concerned that Rubin would have him work with his artists for the sake of giving him a new edge or air of cool, Rick actually had other ideas that actually tied in with Johnny's.
Cash had often times flirted with the idea of an album of "midnight sessions": a set of songs he'd perform by himself, his guitar his only accompaniment, that would thus give his music a very intimate feel - as if he were singing to you in your living room. It turned out Rubin had the same sort of idea for Johnny as well.
Thus came the first album of a very fruitful relationship: "American Recordings". Some might find it a bit of a slow burner, but the intimate nature of the production really comes through, giving the songs a great sense of clarity. Highlights include "Delia's Gone", "Bird On A Wire" (originally by Lenard Cohen) and this version of Loudon Wainwright's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry".
The album was a critical and commercial success, and the Rubin-Cash partnership would continue to flourish.
Next came "Unchained" in 1996, and it's one of my favourite albums in the series. The intimate environment of the first album was gone and in it's place a rambunctious Cash sang balls to the wall aggressive country classics and popular alternative songs of the time like Beck's "Rowboat" and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage". Backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and also featuring members of the Chilli Peppers and Fleetwood Mac, it was probably the last time we'd see The Man In Black in full swing, before his health issues began to get the better of him. There were still gentler moments, like "Memories Are Made Of This", but hearing Cash rip through the likes of "Mean Eyed Cat", "Country Boy" (both songs he wrote in his days at Sun Records) and the incredible "I've Been Everywhere" (listen to that, then take in to account he was knocking on 64 at the time. Amazing right?) is truly remarkable.
But such vigour would soon desert Johnny. While touring "Unchained", Cash fell ill. In 1997 he was diagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome and in 1998 he caught pneumonia.
This would not deter him, however. The year 2000 saw the release of "American III: Solitary Man". This album was perhaps the turning point of the "American" series, where the albums were no longer Cash merely singing songs he admired and could make his own. The music took a new tone of quiet defiance in the face of death. You could see a thematic change in the songs on the records, perhaps most obvious in this instance in versions of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" and Cash's own "I'm Leaving Now".
This would really culminate in Johnny writing what I consider the best song he's ever written, the title track of "American IV", "The Man Comes Around". "American IV" would be released in 2002. Commercially it was the most successful of the series at that point, being the first album of Johnny's to go gold - that wasn't a compilation - in thirty years.
The success of the album would, however, soon be followed by tragedy. On May 15th 2003, his wife June Carter Cash, the love of his life, lost her own battle with ill health and passed away. Before she passed, she told Johnny to keep on working. Despite his continuing poor health and being wheelchair-bound, Johnny heeded the word of his wife, and continued to record with Rubin.
While he would not live to see it, two more albums would be released resulting from the work he did in the final months of his life: "American V: A Hundred Highways", released 2006, and 2010's "American VI: Ain't No Grave". The latter is a bit thin on the ground as far as material goes, but still has gems like "For The Good Times" (originally by Kris Kristofferson) and the title track, which is goosebump-inducing and was the subject of an incredibly dedicated fan project.
But the former is simply sublime, definitely another one of my favourite albums ever and one I've constantly found solace in. Simply put it is the most heartbreaking record I've ever heard. It also helped me appreciate gospel music and how empowering it could be.
Once again it sees Johnny dealing with the fact that his time on Earth would be short lived. The opener, "Help Me" sees Johnny "with a humble heart on bended knee" begging the Lord for one last lease on life. The track that immediately follows, "God's Gonna Cut You Down", appears to indicate the answer he'd expected. Closing track "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now" feels less about the song's actual subject (an innocent man wrongly sent to jail finally having done his time) and more about Johnny being relieved of the burden of living when it was too hard to bear.
But the album also finds him attempting to handle the grief of losing his beloved wife June. While at times he seems philosophical ("Love's Been Good To Me") and in the comfort that they'll be together again soon ("Four Strong Winds"), more often than not he sounds completely devastated. The most obvious example is "Rose Of My Heart": to be frank, the man sounds close to tears singing it, and when caught in the right moment it might bring you to tears too. Hearing him on that song, it's hard to imagine this is the same man that sang of shooting men in Reno just to watch them die.
But the song on this album that cuts through me the most is easily "If You Could Read My Mind", originally a hit for Gordon Lightfoot. Johnny is obviously extremely frail when singing this but I find this actually helps this song to resonate even more with me. Quite often in my life I'll feel regretful over mistakes I've made and get anxious about whether I've done any lasting damage and if I'll ever get back to the way things used to be. I find this song very therapeutic when dealing with those times. Every time I hear those opening chords I get chills.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had Johnny's music, especially from this part of his career, in my life, and his legacy will last long after his death.
JOHNNY CASH 1932-2003