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Clip: Johnny Cash's Legacy of Emotions, on CD's

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/27/arts/music/27POPL.html Johnny Cash s Legacy of Emotions, on CD s By NEIL STRAUSS Published: November 27, 2003 I ll play you
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 27, 2003
      http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/27/arts/music/27POPL.html

      Johnny Cash's Legacy of Emotions, on CD's
      By NEIL STRAUSS

      Published: November 27, 2003

      I'll play you one song," the record producer Rick Rubin said over the
      telephone. Two clicking sounds could be heard in the background. Then a
      voice, singing, came through the earpiece: "I never thought I needed help
      before/Thought that I could get by by myself."

      The voice was that of Johnny Cash, accompanied only by a softly strummed
      guitar, the song by Larry Gatlin. Cash's voice cracked and wavered with
      each word, at times falling out of tempo and tune as if fighting against
      extinguishment. Yet it continued, slow, determined, choking back emotion:
      "But now I know I just can't take it anymore/And with a humble heart on
      bended knee/I'm begging you please for help."

      The song, Mr. Rubin said, was recorded two months after the death of Cash's
      wife, June, and two months before Cash's own death on Sept. 12 at 71.

      It is one of 40 to 50 songs that Cash had recorded for "American V," the
      fifth CD in a 10-year collaboration between Cash and Mr. Rubin, who started
      his career producing the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. The disc is expected
      to be released next year. In the meantime a five-CD box set that includes
      64 previously unreleased Cash recordings was released this week under the
      title "Cash Unearthed" (American/Lost Highway), a name that Cash helped
      select.

      The CD includes collaborations with Joe Strummer, Carl Perkins, Willie
      Nelson, Tom Petty, Nick Cave and, in a moving version of the Cat Stevens
      song "Father and Son," Fiona Apple. The solo material ranges from
      bittersweet new tracks like "Singer of Songs" to stripped-down classic
      gospel and country, like an organ-enhanced "Big Iron" that rivals the Marty
      Robbins hit.

      "Isn't it amazing that my father would pass away and such a body of work
      would come out?" said Cash's son, John Carter Cash. "It looks like a
      30-year section of music, but it was all recorded in the last few years.
      And what's amazing is how much more there is."

      In his last years, especially once he stopped touring in the late 90's,
      Cash was constantly in the studio, recording as many as four songs a day.
      "I spoke to him when he was in the hospital when June passed away," Mr.
      Rubin said. "And he said: `I'm not going to do all the things that people
      normally do when they lose their partner. I'm not going to go out and spend
      money or chase girls. I'm just going to work every day.' "

      Cash was in a wheelchair and almost blind at the time, Mr. Rubin said. Yet
      his work ethic only grew stronger. He and Mr. Rubin had already recorded
      four of a projected 10 CD's, and Cash was scheduled to travel to Los
      Angeles to complete the fifth later in September. Even the box set was not
      a posthumous idea but a project that Cash, his son and Mr. Rubin had worked
      on together.

      "He said that anytime he wasn't working, all he could do was think about
      June and he didn't want to be alive," Mr. Rubin said. "When he was working,
      there were people around, and there was music going on, and he was singing,
      and it was a reason to continue on. Because without that, there was none."

      John Carter Cash said that for his father writing and recording songs were
      ways "for him to express his grief, his angst, his faith in God,
      everything."

      The songs that came out of Johnny Cash's last decade add up to one of the
      most moving musical monologues delivered by a man to his maker. Even the
      extras on the box set hold up to any of the Grammy-winning single CD's that
      Cash and Mr. Rubin released together, testifying to a body of work just as
      powerful as the first songs Cash recorded when he stepped into Sun Studio
      in the 1950's. Back then, Cash was a young rebel with a rolling basso
      profundo that rattled listeners with the intensity of a caged beast torn
      between domesticity and the wild. With his last recordings, the power comes
      from the resignation, vulnerability and honesty in Cash's voice as he
      reflects on his own mortality.

      His version of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," for example, from "American
      IV," is much more stirring than the original; when a man in his 70's
      surveys the "empire of dust" that is his life, it has a much more palpable
      sense of regret than when a man in his 30's expresses the same sentiment.
      Even more direct, in a new recording of his lesser-known 1959 song "The
      Caretaker" on the box set, Cash sings, "Who's gonna cry when old John dies?"

      John Carter Cash recalled that his father recorded "The Caretaker" when he
      was very ill and just beginning his "American III" CD. "It was a time when
      everyone was worried about him passing on," he said. "But he came back, and
      just when he was getting the spirit back in him to do some more recording,
      that was one of the first things he did."

      Like many of the songs on the box set, "The Caretaker" can be hard for his
      son to listen to. "But I have to go on with life and realize that music's
      music," he said. Speaking of his maternal family, the country pioneers the
      Carter Family, he continued: "They were singing songs about death and
      parents dying their whole life long. You can take it as being prophetic,
      but I heard `May the Circle Be Unbroken' my whole life."

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      Johnny Cash thought "American III" would be his last record, Mr. Rubin
      said. When they finished mixing and sequencing it, he said, "I could tell
      he was thinking: `This is it. I'm done now.' So when he was getting ready
      to leave, I pulled him in the other room and said: `We're starting on the
      next album today. We've got to start thinking about songs right now because
      we're not stopping.' And he really lit up."

      For his forthcoming "American V" CD, Cash recorded everything from Bruce
      Springsteen's recent "Further On (Up the Road)" to the traditional gospel
      "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down." Like all his CD's, this is
      one on which many songs seem to double as epitaphs. For the last 10 years
      Mr. Rubin collected songs for Cash to perform by unexpected acts like
      Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Will Oldham and Nick Cave.

      But Cash never lived to perform all the material selected for "American V."

      "There are a couple of songs that it just breaks my heart that we didn't
      get to do," Mr. Rubin said. He mentioned the Stevie Wonder hit "A Place in
      the Sun" and a song written for Cash by Chris Martin of Coldplay.

      Even now Mr. Rubin stills hears songs that he wants Cash to cover. "It
      happens all the time," he said, "and I still write them down, and I still
      get copies of them. I can't bring myself to not continue that process. It
      was so fulfilling."
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