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