The man in black has gone to be with the man in white. After a hard seventy-one years John R. Cash’s big heart stopped beating the other day. Perhaps it was just broken irreparably by the loss of his wife June Carter Cash in May. Certainly one only needed one look at Cash’s video for his rendition of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” to see the inter-dependence between the couple. As Johnny sang in his deep, shakey baritone, “I hurt myself today…”; images of his past sitting around him, covered with dust (it was filmed in the Johnny Cash Museum, which had been shut down) June looked on, a protecting angel. Very moving, deeply personal, it is a disturbing and lasting image.
When June passed away I thought, “It’s only a matter of time before Johnny joins her.” But he had seemed to perk up in recent months. Word is that he had 40 songs ready to record for American V, the fifth album in the revitalizing series of albums he had recorded for Rick Rubin. Rubin had taken Cash under his wing a few years ago. Cash’s long-time record company had let him go; they hadn’t known what to do with him for a while. He put out a few albums on Mercury trying a bit of this and a bit of that. Paul McCartney joined him for a duet, Nick Lowe (a one time son-in-law) produced half an album, and Johnny made a variety of attempts at contemporizing his sound. Rick Rubin proved he didn’t need to. He just stripped it down to basic elements. An acoustic guitar, and Johnny’s unique voice, maybe a harmony or a second guitar, but just the essentials. 1994’s American Recordings sold like crazy, received rave reviews and put Mr. Cash back on top. It was followed by Unchained in 1996, and Solitary Man in 2000. Then American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002.
Perhaps it became a bit formulaic; drop in cover versions of some pop songs, bring along some trad tunes from the classic country songbook, toss in a couple of guest star cameos and let Johnny sing. Rubin’s production is minimal – just make sure the guitar sounds live, and pick up every syllable of Cash’s voice. But that formula was the right one. If you have a good recipe for a pie crust…you don’t change anything! That’s the secret. It works with music too.
Cash’s career covers six decades, with more albums than anyone could cover in a short article. He started as a rockabilly singer with Sun Records, recording for Sam Phillips. His first hit was “Cry, Cry, Cry” in 1955. In ’56 he made his most enduring record, “I Walk the Line,” and was part of the Million Dollar Quartet with Sun stablemates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then he moved to Columbia Records and along with hits like “Ring of Fire” came a decade long struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. A bad car accident led to more drug addiction. His first wife left him. He moved to Nashville and married June Carter who helped him clean up, and led him to fundamental Christianity. They married in 1968.
Then came the Golden Age of Johnny Cash. Live At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin, powerful albums of raw rockin’ country which touched the convicts right where they lived. And touched the charts too. Bob Dylan sang a duet with him on ’68’s Nashville Skyline, for which Cash also wrote the liner notes. They recorded an album’s worth of tunes, which I recently heard on a bootleg. All very relaxed, not particularly commercial but well worth a listen. Dylan was a guest on the first episode of Cash’s television show The Johnny Cash Show. I remember watching it. Cash had a distinctive and potent TV presence.
Cash continued to tour and record during the 70s and 80s, writing an autobiography (The Man in Black) and a novel on the life of the Apostle Paul (The Man in White). He updated the bio more recently in CASH. He won several Grammy Awards and was a member of the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, having written well over 400 songs. But his style of boom-chukka music faded from popularity, and the corporate bigwigs cut him loose. Thank goodness for the vision of Rick Rubin.
Last year’s American IV: The Man Comes Around is a potent conclusion to a life’s work. It commences with Johnny reading a passage from Revelation sounding like a haunted preacher and then that acoustic guitar and a tale of the end times. That fundamentalist bent is still alive. “Hurt” comes next, and while Nine Inch Nails might have been talking about heroin, Cash makes this song about life! “Give My Love to Rose” is a song about dying ex-convict who will never get home to see his family. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” takes on a new perspective removed from Art Garfunkel’s choirboy voice.
“I Hung My Head” is about an accidental shooting and the remorse that follows the perpetrator throughout his brief life. Add to these a Beatles’ cover (“In My Life”), Ewan McColl’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and the Eagles’ “Desperado.” All done in Cash’s own voice, carrying his lifetime of experience. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” becomes a song of faith in Cash’s hands. It’s an incredible performance.
I listened to this album many times, but most recently on a five hour drive. By halfway I found a tear forming in my eye and had to take a break replacing Cash with the Lovin’ Spoonful for a few miles. Today that tear is dropping, rolling down my cheek. Johnny Cash is gone, to join June Carter in heaven’s band. What a legacy he has left. Five hundred-odd albums. Many more individual songs, and performances, and memories. A man like this doesn’t come ’round too often.
(American Recordings, 2002)