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 411mania » Music » Columns

Give Life Back To Music 10.28.13: Johnny Cash - The Rubin Years: Unchained
Posted by Sean Comer on 10.28.2013

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Johnny Cash – The American Recordings

I want to drop squarely into this week's remembrance with as little ado as possible. First though, being that I see this column as one big, warm weekly invitation to press pause on the Internet's never-ending "Loudest Gripe" contest and just bask in best things about the music we all love, I wanted to share the gist of what Wyatt Beougher wrote me in last week's comment section.

Comments like this one are a big, big reason that I love what I do.

My family never got satellite TV until I was 16, so my formative years, not unlike yours, were based around what my dad liked. While there were some commonalities between our fathers, my dad never cared for ELO or Santana, so I instead got Creedence, Three Dog Night, and the Doors. And while Cash was never one of your favorites early on, he's been so deeply ingrained into my life (along with George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard) that I can't remember a time in my life where I was without his music. When this album came out, I was fully entrenched in my adolescent rebellion of all the music I'd grown up on, with my musical tastes leaning more towards grunge and a nascent exploration into rap/hip-hop. I remember buying this CD for my dad for Christmas in 1994, and while I was initially dismissive when he told me that I needed to listen to it, one listen was all it took for me to be completely hooked. Each time one of the "American Recordings" was released became a holiday for my father and I, and while work (and later college and my work) meant that we didn't generally get to listen to the albums together, there were always excited phone calls after they were released, comparing our favorite songs (and generally me educating my dad about the covers and their original artists). Cash is one of the few artists that (in my opinion) has never made a bad album, but this series is by far his best. The depth of emotion conveyed in his voice (and even in his very breath), especially in parts IV, V, and VI is unparalleled, and I honestly don't think there's ever been a more unlikely pairing of artist and producer that enjoyed the same level of success as Cash and Rick Rubin (and I'm not talking about commercial success, just the simple fact of making such wonderful music.)

I could sit here and gnash my teeth fearing that Wyatt has all but written my concluding notes on this series before I could be so inspired as to write them myself. I won't. I'm too taken with the happiness that, clearly,
Wyatt gets it.

What really gave Cash's music life and has seen that it endures so deeply within the American experience – no pun intended – is tragically the thing that country music as it's known in its present identity has so completely lost that I'm not sure it can be regained: a warm, honest inclusiveness.

Country music has become insecure and confrontational all too often. Especially among its male artists, it's become unfortunately immortalized as little more than a grab bag of indistinguishable pretty boys writing more of a country-rock cavalcade of meat-headed preening. Those of you who grew up with the generations of country music that I did have seen a musical art of encapsulating things human and relatable reduced to a hollow Mad Lib of trite, stock symbology – a self-parody that became a sort of tragic joke of laziness. There's really nothing inviting, human or relatable anymore.

Together, the music that Cash and producer Rick Rubin made is a last stand of something deeply entrenched but now latent in the genre. It's something that personally honor because it's something that's every bit as identifying about being a Comer (or, on Mom's side, an Allen): "What we have is ours to share – come, sit with us." We are who we are. That's not us spoiling for a fight or comparing ourselves to anyone else. Take it or leave it, though, we share and share alike.

That's what these sessions are, to me. Something that's plainly spoke but that reaches so clearly all to whom they speak.

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  • Johnny Cash

  • Unchained

  • RELEASED: November 5, 1996

  • American/Sony

  • Face it, Kids: American Recordings made it look easy.

    Cash and Rubin left all who heard that first 1994 endeavor recorded together in Cash's own living room to wonder, "Why had no one so captured the man this way before now?"

    It's incredible to imagine – so much so, that it's almost unimaginable itself, actually – but by the time Rubin and Cash decided to have a go at taking a never-before-heard-quite-this-way stock of the Man in Black's heart, Cash was teetering on obscurity. Columbia Records had dropped him in 1991 and he'd been without a label following a brief dance with Capital Records thereafter.

    When a man has nothing left to lose – more to the point, when he realizes that the things that keep stirring his heart to beat its strongest can never be taken away – he sometimes finds a freedom so many will never know. With so little on the table that could burn up if the recordings never sold strongly, Cash had found a kindred heart for music who wanted to help the living avatar of country music's strongest spirit make the kind of album that had really been waiting to be made for too long.

    Up to that point, American Recordings had been Cash's finest hour. He and Rubin had stripped away so much ornate arrangement and dressed-up production to reinvent Cash at the same time that they bared unprecedented rawness of a soul storyteller.

    In a sense, it was Cash as a performer and songwriter learning to walk again. With Unchained, the steps became taller.

    If American Recordings is to be seen as Cash's most naked music, then Unchained could be seen as the man clothing himself in only the plainest, most austere of threads. The recordings are given a few more layers here and there of dual guitar tracks, banjo, piano and other purist instrumentations that give the songs an infectious "twang" without veering into the sort of weak-hearted softness Cash was determined to avoid.

    His take on Beck's "Rowboat" is arguably one of the fullest-sounding tracks of the collected 14 songs, in all it's bendy honky-tonk tradition. Still, the backing is kept simple enough to let Cash's voice take center-stage and give the song its greatest substance. Similarly, his take on Don Gibson's "Sea of Heartache" ups the tempo from where "Rowboat" leads off, to the point of bringing to mind Cash's one-time son-in-law Rodney Crowell.

    Oh, but then there's "Rusty Cage".

    In all six of these albums, this is arguably one of Cash's finest hours. In his most daring moments throughout these six releases, Cash's renderings of seemingly leftfield genre-cover choices make magic that is transcendent of the gaps between himself and famously respectful original artists who gladly and humbly lent their songs to him. As originally sung by Soundgarden guitarist and lead singer Chris Cornell on his band's 1991 grunge classic Badmotorfinger, the song is a raw-boned angst explosion. It's not so much a threat as a promise: "I'm gonna break my rusty cage and run."

    In Cash's hands, it sounds like it could just as well be the very next empowering declaration that followed the lone cowboy of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" as he rose from the ridge where he'd rested and been visited by a vision of damned horsemen. Maybe it's the steady-rolling gallop of the beat. Maybe it's hearing the rising return of what sounds a little bit like Cash's iconic sneer, but to me, this is the moment when he's riding taller in the saddle again. When he sings, "Gonna break my rusty cage and run," it's understandable to perhaps here, "I'd strongly suggest you get out of my path."

    On the other hand, his take on "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)" is a touching, plucked-banjor-and-guitar waltzing endearment that more than does justice to the reflective tenderness with which Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton and Art Kassel imbued it prior. "Country Boy" follows it up with a rollicking take on Cash's own Sun Records 1957 original that returns him to a free-wheeling, sharpened pace comes seemingly out of nowhere after hearing such measured restraint with Rubin.

    Of course, he then scales it right back with a visitation to Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This", a shuffling, swaying reminder of what the then-wavering quaver to Cash's well-aged voice could bring to a song in terms of endearing sweetness.

    "Southern Accents" is often a favorite of the album, because…well, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash. OK, I kiddingly marginalize it, but it really is a sweet take on a Petty cover – joined by Tom himself – that brings Cash to one of Petty's earlier-days moments that betrays a definite country influence. It's just that, hindsight being all that it is, it ultimately pales in comparison with a certain later Petty cover that added whole new dimensions to a better-known single.

    Personally, I'd rather go back, put the prayer of Josh Haden's "Spiritual" on and let time forget its own meaning.

    "Mean Eyed Cat" is another improvement on some vintage Cash, pouring a little added, revitalized thunder into Cash's 1960 recording for Sun. Finally, this set rounds out with what has become arguably the definitive version of a 1962 hit by Lucky Starr. Lucky did it first. As seems to happen often, Cash did the Geoff Mack-written "I've Been Everywhere" best. He has been, and to someone like myself who's had about all of the contemporary-country posturing that's to be stomached, it's seemingly the damning evidence that nobody claiming country credibility today will ever do the spirit honky-tonk, beer-and-sawdust, dirty-roads-and-dusty-shoes-and-splintered-guitars quite this way.

    I might enjoy some songs more than others among these six albums. I have my favorites. However, I can't deny that every note Cash sings couldn't be more poignantly delivered. From the tender tremors in his voice that color "Southern Accents" "You're The Only Rose…" so meaningfully to the moments when the young-Cash tide swells over the banks on songs like "Rusty Cage" and "Mean Eyed Cat" and of course "I've Been Everywhere", he infuses music new and old with the same sharpness and honesty that he gave "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues" some decades prior before hard living and harder lessons taught him all that colors this music.

    Most importantly, the music is just so – well, human. I don't care if you were raised in Mississippi or Minneapolis; Cash speaks a tongue of commonality and inclusiveness. He speaks in a relatable dialect. No posturing. No insecurity about his country "credibility" despite being a man who'd just years earlier been set adrift by the industry he loved.

    It's more than American recordings. It's human music.

    Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.


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