By Thomas Conner
© TULSA WORLD
Johnny Cash is cool. Johnny Cash is a rebel. Johnny Cash is
an American myth. Johnny Cash is back.
Forging through his fourth decade of recording, Cash has once
again fired boosters in his career no one would have guessed he
had. After hooking up with hip, young rock and rap producer Rick
Rubin and signing to the rock label American Recordings, Cash
turned out one of the most phenomenal albums of his career, 1994's
This year, he's back with another expectations-breaker.
“Unchained'' finds the legendary Man in Black singing better than
ever before and covering everything from old Cash originals like
“Mean-Eyed Cat'' to songs by Beck and Soundgarden. Like Tony
Bennett, Cash has found himself a fatherly icon amongst the MTV
“Unchained'' debuted this week at No. 26 on the Billboard
country chart. Not bad for a country artist of any era, but
particularly great for someone who's been counted out of the game
as many times as Cash has.
“I haven't had (a record) that high in a long time,'' Cash said
in an interview last week. “It feels good. It feels like the '50s
all over again.''
Cash was let go from Columbia Records in 1986 and moved to
Mercury, where things just didn't blossom like he expected. Once
free of Mercury, Cash wondered what path he would take next. That's
when Rubin called.
“Rick came looking for me,'' Cash said. “I was playing a show
in California, and he called my manager and asked if we could talk.
Once I found out who he was, I said, 'Why in the world would he be
interested in me?' And I asked him that. He said he knew my work
and that he wanted to sit me down, give me and microphone and a
guitar and let me sing everything I wanted, and then he'd find a
way to make an album out of it. We let the idea sit a while, and he
was still serious about it months later. He made me believe I could
do what I really wanted to do.''
See, even American legends need a little encouragement. Rubin's
devotion to the project convinced Cash to sign up, and the result
was “American Recordings,'' an astonishing guitar-and-voice affair
that revived Cash among his two generations of fans and added a
third — a new group of young admirers, lured by the vogue
“Unplugged'' nature of the record and by the historical awe that
surrounds the figure of Cash.
On “Unchained,'' which features Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
as the backing band, Cash keeps up his balancing act between the
old and new fans. For the longtime fans, he covers another Carter
Family tune (“Kneeling Drunkard's Plea'') and finishes a Cash
original that wasn't finished the first time he recorded it (“Mean
Eyed Cat''). For the new fans, Cash covers a couple of modern rock
pioneers and does so with the power and grace that has tamed all
musical influences around him these 40-odd years.
The new disc opens with “Rowboat,'' a plaintive love lament
written by the cutting edge's boy wonder, Beck.
“I used him as an opener a year and a half ago in L.A., and he
sang some Carter Family Appalachian things. He also sang 'Rowboat,'
and I really liked it,'' Cash said.
The Soundgarden cover, “Rusty Cage,'' didn't come to him so
easily. Rubin asked Cash if he'd heard the song; Cash said no, so
Rubin played him the Soundgarden album.
“Right away I said, 'That's not for me. No way. I can't record
that song.' But Rick said, 'What if we work up an arrangement that
feels comfortable for you,' and I thought about it. The lyrics
really fascinated me. It's like the Beat look at a love affair --
very mystical, interpret-it-your-own-way kind of lyrics. But I just
didn't think there was any way. They worked a long time, and it
worked out. Now it's my favorite song that I perform,'' Cash said.
The choice of new material is more than mere kow-towing to the
current hip couture, but Cash said it's nice to have more young
fans. The monumental legacy of Cash's career doesn't seem to be
daunting to the new fans, either, and Cash said there's really no
prerequisite for understanding his music.
“You know, the 'American Recordings' was really what I wanted
people to hear from me — just me and my guitar. That's why I like
any country artist.''
And what's next for this cornerstone of country music, and how
many more boosters does he have to fire in his career? For now,
Cash said he's just taking one show at a time, entertaining his
fans — from each generation — as his highest priority.
“I've been around twice now. This is my third time around,''
Cash said. “Everything else from now on is gravy.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.