Give Life Back To Music 10.21.13: Johnny Cash – The Rubin Years: American Recordings
Welcome to Give Life Back To Music, the double rainbow over Highway 411 that halts rush hour dead.
Broad and sometimes esoteric as time and maturity have spread my tastes to be today, my roots are my roots.
I grew up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities suburbs raised by a father who (very vocally) loathed everything about post-1960s pop music. He was the middle child of three brothers raised in the Kansas City, MO area by a decorated World War II hero who proudly provided for his family by working at the local Ford plant right until succumbing to cancer while Dad was in college. His parents’ traditional values stuck to him and his older brother, both coming of age amid the 1960s’ tumultuous musical sea change, yet completely shunning the fabled psychedelic tides an iconic subculture.
Oh, Dad was aware enough, even when I was a kid, of the popular trends surrounding him; he had to be – it was infinitely funnier, being raised by a cantankerous Archie Bunker-type than Dr. Temperance Brennan ever confusedly telling my sister and I that he “Doesn’t know what that means.”
That early, the influence wore me down. Oh, did it wear me down. For a good while, my little sister was the poppy little princess with more contemporary tastes, but all three of us huddled more tightly together in abject fear at Mom’s unsettling yen for Celine Dion, Kenny G and Michael Bolton. Still, many of the happiest golden memories from birth until 12 years old – when Dad packed us up and moved us to South Dakota, where our now-affordable basic cable subscription gave us MTV access for the first time in my life and Dad’s campaign against alternative, hip-hop and latter-day pop became an unwinnable war – are heavily woven with the music Dad loved.
Playing Tetris, Punch-Out and Pac-Man with Dad on our NES in the basement almost always meant being treated to the music of his youth that sucked him in despite the rise of psychedelic rock, heavy metal and hip-hop around him. There was Buddy Holly. There was Santana’s Abraxas. There was ELO, the soundtrack to The Blues Brothers, the first four or so Beatles albums, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Chuck Berry and more.
When the weekend rolled around, the State of Minnesota let him off the leash a while and if the ground wasn’t bleached pale with snow, that meant hunting and fishing trips nine weekends out of 10 – mosquitos that could be retrofitted for bombing runs be damned. During the driving hours when Dad’s due wasn’t paid to the Limbaugh gospel, I got to listen to some uncommonly fantastic country music. That’s a love affair that never really ended.
Country, for me, is that love from whom I grew apart but still fondly remember for the true wonder that she was when I fell for her. This isn’t the bro-country drivel that today gives us true ballads of America’s Heartland such as “I Wanna Check You For Ticks” or “Titty’s Beer.” Combined with the last great era of modern country that either of us could really stand, Dad mostly raised me on the iconic precursors that somehow tragically gave way from romantic tales of the Old West and portraits of a simpler life to Kenny Chesney’s tired Parrothead act, Brad Paisley’s misguided race-relations dialogue and a plague of indistinguishable meatheads pounding their chests in the midst of a “Who’s More ‘Country’?” contest.
Maybe it was the young, impressionable age, but….no hard-sell pressure needed. Those aren’t just songs. It’s not merely some of the realest, most honest music ever composed. That time of country music before its identity crisis is inextricably tied to my very favorite memories. I easily adore Don Williams, Willie Nelson, and especially Charlie Pride and Marty Robbins on a level with my fondness for Daft Punk, Dave Matthews Band, Kanye West and Juliana Hatfield. Watching the Breaking Bad series finale, having a hunch at what the episode title was referencing and then seeing Walter White flip that cassette onto the passenger seat, I was suddenly nine years old again with a bag of Old Dutch dill pickle potato chips and Dr. Pepper in Dad’s truck, “Old Blue.”
Maybe most importantly, it’s my most internally incontrovertible evidence that the most moving music can be the very simplest you’ll find, in words and in melody. It needn’t ever shout, because it gets across volumes more in a dulcet whisper. Sometimes – unfortunately rarely, but sometimes – a voice and mind come along that can take caring possession of any song they come across, nurturing it as they would their own.
Like a father would do.
Believe it or not, Dad really wasn’t responsible at all for my fondness for Tennessee’s Man in Black.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care for Cash’s music, though he’s always said that he never agreed with Cash’s pity for prison inmates. It’s just that his music happened to not often be among the records and cassette tapes that he played for me most often.
To be honest, had he tried to wedge more Cash in there, I was so set in my favorites by that point that I would’ve just been patiently waiting out Johnny until I could sing along to “Just Between You And Me”, “El Paso”, “Big Iron” and “Cotton Fields Back Home” for what, to him, must’ve seemed like the millionth time each in a six-hour car trip. Hey, even the finest of favorite dishes can begin to taste like ash if taken every single day.
Cash’s approach had never been honky-tonkin’, tear-in-my-bear twang country styling. How was it that the sound of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two was described in Walk The Line? “Sharp as a razor & steady as a train.” Cash’s younger voice itself was like the pair of hands on the proudest, finest raised of Southern men of the earth: solid & strong enough to swing the heaviest hammer without a slip, but gentle enough to still a river’s angriest current.
Hard times, harder living and age changed his timbre in the way advancing years change us all: we’re all given stalwart fortitude enough in our voices seemingly to last just as long as we it to hold out. With time, the depth in the bottom of a man’s voice is carried away by time’s tide, stripping it to what it needs to be in our elder years: the embodiment of sensitivity and wise understanding that can only come from living, passed along in the most bare, tender form to the ones who walk in our footsteps after us.
Cash’s voice was well into just that transformation in 1994. He knew it, too.
In the Halcyon days of Sun Records, Cash and legendary producer Sam Phillips understood that his tone better suited him to more sparse arrangements. Seemingly every producer after – Sam Clement, especially – would fight the man tooth-and-nail, insisting on backing him with strings, barbershop quartets and larger bands of studio musicians. It had Twang, but it didn’t have Cash.
Cash got it, and so did Phillips: the busyness of so many latter-day recordings robbed the songs of the earnestness that Cash’s voice alone can bring to lyrics.
Enter Rick Rubin.
Rubin got it. Oh, did he get it. This 1994 release was the first on what was once Def American Records and a rare foray into country music for a producer famed still today for his ability to tap into the most unique parts of any artist’s heart and soul to draw forth truly special music that just couldn’t happen with anybody else. He took Cash’s appreciation for stripped-down, minimalist atmosphere and ran with it.
With the exceptions of Cash’s original composition “The Man Comes Around”, his haunting “Ain’t No Grave” and the unendingly stirring cover of “Hurt”, few of the songs from the six American Recordings releases reached quite the career-defining stature of “Ring of Fire”, “Walk The Line” or “Folsom Prison Blues”. That is endlessly unfortunate, because these albums were easily the best music Cash ever made.
As is the case throughout these six albums, Cash himself wrote only about half the songs on the album, though several such as “Oh, Bury Me Not (Introduction: A Cowboy’s Prayer)” and “Delia’s Gone” are rehashed versions, in the American Recordings motif, of certain earlier recordings. Among the rest, some are covers while others are originals written by Cash’s peers particularly for him to sing. You might as well pour a fine, neat whiskey when reading this next month-and-a-half’s worth of columns and take a sip every time I point out the way Cash’s approach stamps his name indelibly upon every song it touches.
First, though, the revisit to 1962’s “Delia’s Gone” vindicates Cash’s sensibility toward his own voice. The original is a fine tune, but one that just sounds more “Conway Twitty” than “Johnny Cash.”
That’s not a slap at Conway Twitty, mind. Johnny Cash, though? Hello….he was Johnny Cash.
Of course, the Rubin take was a younger man’s words sung by an older self. That said, the simplicity of simply Cash’s worn voice with a gently strummed guitar renders unto the song a whole new character, something threatening in its gleeful malice yet, to borrow from a good doctor, “Toe-tappingly tragic.”
OK, what the hell. Ladies, Gentlemen and Others, I give you….Johnny Cash on Beavis & Butt-Head.
Oh, by the by – the gal playing “Delia” in that clip? Kate Moss.
“Thirteen” is a harbinger of what was to come in this line of albums. The Cash-Rubin sound somehow manages to bring out not only the soulful, rawest truths from Cash’s hard-lived lifetime and hard-learned lessons, but this original written especially for the Man in Black really is a credit to just what an under-appreciated songwriter Glenn Danzig is to nail down a song that suits an artist so far outside what’s typically considered the former Misfits singer’s wheelhouse. In Cash’s hands, the song takes on the visage of some dark, grim ballad of the most lawless West, and you have to believe that was how Glenn meant it.
Another rehash of a ‘60s Cash recording, “Oh, Bury Me Not…” is a treat for lovers of traditional Cash. He opens up with the solemn “Cowboy’s Prayer” recitation over some muted acoustic strumming, but with about 1:20 left, it’s the expected soft plea of an old cowboy who knows that his rides remaining grow few. The Leonard Cohen cover “Bird On A Wire” is something absolutely beautiful from one of the few men who could truly grasp the sort of forlorn longing that is Cohen’s signature.
“Down There By The Train”, though…this is a song that’s truly emblematic of what I love about Cash, about Tom Waits (who wrote the song especially for Cash and later covered it himself) and their rapidly dying breed: the fine brush of words. This meditation on the value of mercy, even when lent to a betrayer, might just be my favorite track on this album. I defy any of you to play this song, never glance at the time remaining and actually fail to lose track entirely of time.
On the other hand, the Cash-penned “Drive On” is idyllic storyteller Cash. He’s sharing the sorrow and frustration of a Vietnam-vet broken inside by the nation he returned to failing to tender any thanks for enduring untellable atrocities first-hand so that the nightmares wouldn’t haunt their lifetimes instead. This is the kind of political conscience in Cash that I really believe even Dad could appreciate.
I’m going to gloss over “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” closing out the album because, while it’s a lovely song itself, a big part of the enjoyment to be found in these six albums comes in the quietude and how the surrounding silence is as much a character trait in the music as the lyrics and music themselves. This is a live version, and there’s just something about even the few early whoops and hollers that removes me from the moment. It’s a shame, because it’s really a perfect capstone to this set.
Instead, I’ll say that “Like A Soldier”, a Cash original, is a nice companion to “Drive On”, maybe even to be seen as the same man so many years later and more at peace with his Lord, his country and himself. On the other hand, maybe it really is just a metaphor for Cash himself coming to grips with mistakes made, lingering scars, friends wounded and other pains because it’s now just himself and his wife June, standing tall together in the end.
Amazingly, the albums would only get better with each new recording. They’re the sounds of a man who, surely knowing that he had more years behind him than ahead, found a new kind of life inside himself and quite possibly the most compelling music he’d ever made. Revisiting honest music like this is like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. There are pieces of myself – who I’ve been and who I still am – that are tied forever into music that others would probably tell me seems so “unlike” what they’d expect me to enjoy.
Thanks for clicking, Kids. Before I go, a good friend wanted to pass something valuable along to us all. I yield the floor…
Never dull your colors for someone else’s canvas.