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Cash on the Barrelhead

After a period of obscurity, Johnny Cash is once again a wanted man.

"But the thing about American Recordings was that I didn't want it to sound and feel like a performance. I wanted it to be that I had my guitar in my hand and I was singin' to you and you alone. Or singin' to myself. They had to have that feeling before we would put it on the list, and they had to be a good song--I don't know if there are any great songs on that album. There's a lot of good songs that have come along, but not many great songs. But we had to believe they were all good songs we picked, and some songs are better than others. Some old songs are as good as they ever were, but some aren't as good as they used to be when it comes to recordin' them."

If last year's Unchained--featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood--seemed somehow less satisfying than Cash's American debut, it was because American Recordings was the record Cash had always wanted to make. He had long dreamed of doing the solo acoustic album and was told by Columbia and Mercury execs he couldn't, so American Recordings reverberated with echoes of passion and perfection. Unchained was bound to pale in comparison, because it was more like any other record, less like a Personal Statement.

Unchained did have its brilliant moments, though: A cynic might dismiss his cover of Beck's "Rowboat" as cheap gimmickry, but Cash somehow found a way to make it his own--to turn Beck's ironic throwaway into a sad folk hymn, twisting the young man's words into his own woeful poem ("My body's out of tune/With the burnin' waves"). "'Rowboat' was one of those things that feel pretty natural," Cash says. "It sounds like something I might have written in the '60s, when I was goin' through my self-induced hell."

And his versions of "Country Boy" and "Mean Eyed Cat" (which Cash first recorded in 1955 for Sam Phillips) recall that young Arkansas-born rockabilly rebel who stepped into Sun Studios in the mid-1950s; indeed, his voice sounds somehow more alive on those two songs than it has in years--higher, livelier, like a man sneaking up on the beginning instead of crawling toward the end. Even his take on Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" doesn't sound inappropriate--but it's just not as dangerous-sounding as "Country Boy." Cash, after all, has lived the life; Chris Cornell probably read about it.

Cash was skeptical of the whole affair from the beginning--worried Petty and the band would use the opportunity of backing Cash to shine, nervous about whether the Heartbreakers would be able to interpret his vision for Unchained.

"For this record, it was about recording with some musicians I was really comfortable with and getting the whole music flow and the feeling I had as one person," Cash says. "When we were recording 'The One Rose,' everybody had the same goal in mind; everybody was in one accord emotionally, spiritually and every other way. It was like this whole song, from all the instruments, came through me. It's like I took everything they were giving me and was putting it through my soul and out my mouth. That's the way these songs had to work. They had to feel like they could be a part of me. Like 'Folsom Prison Blues' is a part of me. There's no separating me from that song. Well, I had to feel that these songs on this album were that way--that they were that good."

To that end, Cash was unsure whether Rick Rubin would find an arrangement of "Rusty Cage" that sounded suitable. Indeed, when Rubin first played him the Soundgarden original, Cash scoffed at the idea.

"I told Rick, 'That's not my song, I can't do that song,'" Cash recalls. "And he said, 'What if we got an arrangement you're comfortable with?' And I said, 'On that song, I don't think it's possible, but if you did get one I'm comfortable with, that's what it's all about. I'll try it.' So they worked and got an arrangement I was really comfortable with. I think today I enjoy performin' 'Rusty Cage' as much as anything on the show. I really do. I love it. I don't know--it's just got a good feel to it.

"If I hear something that's comfortable to me, I'll do it. I've got an open mind and an open heart for music. It's the closed minds in this business that limit the potential, and there's so much of that out here in Nashville. Minds are closed down to whatever's not gettin' on this gravy train and ridin' today. And I just hate that kind of thing. I just always have and always will. I've always been a Memphis rebel. I never did do it the way they do it down on Music Row."

Cash recently told daughter Rosanne in Interview magazine that working with Rubin recalled the "freedom" he experienced at Sun--a freedom he wasn't necessarily looking for, he says now, but one he's frustrated he could never find. He insists he likely will continue to record with Rubin and American Recordings "to the end"; they have already begun discussing the third album, one filled with gospel songs and spirituals. It's only appropriate payback for a man who makes promises to God.

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