Cash on the Barrelhead

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

It was due in stores by July, but a lifetime of memories does not come easy to a man whose first hit came 41 years ago, when he was a member of a Sun Records roster that included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and a boy named Elvis. So the world will have to wait a few more months, likely till January, for Johnny Cash to put his memories to tape recorder, for a writer to take those recordings and transcribe them to paper, and for Harper San Francisco to take that paper and turn it into a book. A few months, after all, is nothing in the grand scheme of Johnny Cash's enormous life--the blink of a blink of an eye, really, especially when there are more important things to be concerned about than telling the same old stories one more time.

Cash didn't even want to write his life story. He's already got the boxed sets and the sur-geries to remind him of his age and mortality; and he's already got the one book--1975's Man in Black, released by a religious publishing house around the time Cash got off the pills and got hooked on Jesus--to explain a life lived well and lived hard. Plus, Cash shrugs, he gets tired pretty easily these days, those 65 years (Lord, is that all?) catching up with him; better he spend a day fishing than remembering all over again those Million Dollar Quartet sessions or the day he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" or the time he got busted in El Paso for smuggling Dexedrine over the border.

"Man in Black was written for Zondervan--a Bible publisher, a religious publisher--and so many companies wanted me to write a book that would cover the secular rather than the spiritual side of my life," Cash says from his Nashville-based offices, the House of Cash. "I just never really have wanted to do another book, and I was determined that I wasn't going to until this past year. Two or three big companies were really interested, and somebody finally made an offer I guess I couldn't refuse. On top of that, Billy Graham called me up out of the clear blue sky and said, 'I wish you would write a book.' And I said, 'What would you want me to write about?' And he said, 'About your life and experiences.' He said, 'You should do it now, while you've got the energy to do it, while you feel like doin' it.'

"And I'm enjoyin' some of it. Some of it's fun, but some of it's painful. It's painful to go into the amphetamine years, when there was so much damage to my psyche and my spirit and the people around me. It's painful remembering that all over again, dragging that back through. But there's a lot of funny things and interesting things that have happened that were definitely not covered in Man in Black, and I'm enjoyin' writin' 'em.

"But the book comes at a time when I'm really havin' trouble squeezin' in the time for it. It's been hard to find time for everything I want to do and still have a little time left over for me--which I made my first priority. I made an agreement with my God and my wife and myself that I would take care of myself first and that all the rest would follow. It's hard to find time to take a week or two off to go fishin' or whatever when there's so much that people want from you."

Cash is not complaining. Not at all. He is, in fact, grateful to be so busy and to find his time limited by the demands of others. Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but--merely another country-music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue," and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks--the Six Flags and Billy Bob's of this world. And, sure enough, he'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and Country.

Somewhere along the way, Cash--like fellow Highwaymen Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, as well as George Jones and so many other country greats--slipped from superstar status to become a cult icon. He and Nelson were no longer welcome on the labels on which they became legends (both have long since been exiled from Columbia Records); instead, they were banished to rock labels (Cash to Rick Rubin's American Recordings and Nelson to Island Records). Nelson was even forced to hawk records on television (where he sold a rarities boxed set a few years ago). Both men are ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, exiles in their homeland. Never mind that they are shoved out of the way for pretty-boy thirty-year-olds--mere children who are pale and unformed imitations of legends that Cash and Nelson knew and performed alongside. They're turned into oldies acts even after proving they're capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite.

For most people, Cash simply disappeared during the 1980s. In actuality, his career was sucked into a black hole known as Mercury/Polygram, where Cash was signed in 1986 after his relationship with Columbia Records had run its 27-year course. Though he released some of the finest records of his career during his stint on the label, including Water From the Wells of Home (which featured the likes of Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers) and Mystery of Life (which contained a classic performance of "Wanted Man"), Cash had begun to feel like an old man trapped inside history books. He was the outlaw who couldn't get arrested.

"I was at a session in downtown Nashville one day, and somebody came in from Randy Travis's record company," Cash recalls. "I said, 'What's goin' on over there?' And he said, 'Aw, we're just lookin' for another Randy Travis.' I said, 'What's wrong with the one you got? You got a good one, you oughta keep him and let people know about him. I heard demographics so much I wanted to vomit. I stopped tryin' to get Nashville to do anything for me record-wise.

"But I never think about radio. I never wonder if they're playing my records. It's very liberating. When I release a record, I don't run and buy Billboard magazine. Never did, really. My people would always lay it on my desk in front of me or comment on it, and they'd show it to me, but I don't think I ever bought a copy of Billboard magazine. I really don't think I have. That's never really been where it's at."

In retrospect, Cash's signing to American Recordings in 1994 was a stroke not of desperation but of cold-blooded genius. Rubin was Cash's kind of guy--someone who treated Cash not as a waxwork legend but as a viable performer whose best years were still in front of him. Rubin was probably smart enough to know he wouldn't make much money with Cash, but he was also sharp enough to know he'd make a great record with the Man in Black. Look--how the hell could anyone go wrong giving Cash a guitar and hitting the "record" button on the tape machine?

American Recordings, released three years ago, would prove to be perhaps Cash's oddest--and, in some twisted way, most fulfilling--record from start to finish. Even its cover seemed to warn of what was inside: With a wide-open sky behind him and two hellhounds by his side, Cash stands cloaked in nightmare black. He props his guitar case in front of him and looks straight at--or, more accurately, straight through--the camera. It's as though he's daring you to listen to this unholy assortment of murder ballads and religious hymns and war stories--to music that drips with blood.

Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and he sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others--not to mention a few of his older, lesser-known songs--and wrings the life (and death) from them. Contained within is a stark, desolate portrait of a man (or men, depending upon whether you consider this a protracted monologue or an album of vignettes) who struggles with the demons inside his soul until he finally gives up and gives in. And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, Cash sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell: "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

Cash says there were seventy songs recorded for American Recordings, fourteen of which turn up on the highly sought-after American Outtakes bootleg CD that's every bit as good as the original--perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's L.A. living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease ("Friends in California," especially) than its predecessor: Cash's voice is piercing and doomsaying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the devil.

Particularly remarkable are Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar), and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash says. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me.

"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.

"I've got a producer and a record company who believe in me, and more important, I believe in myself more than ever," Cash says. "There comes a time when nobody wants what you got so long you get to thinkin' nobody wants you at all. There was so much apathy on the part of my record company that I got that way, too--I got very apathetic about recording. I would wonder, 'Well, what's the point if I go and record an album and they press 500 copies and that's it?' I mean, I don't need any more lessons in futility. If I sell a lot of records or not, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the record company or Rick, because I'm doin' what I should be doin'--and what I feel right doin'.

"I wake up with a new song every day. The song comes through me from somewhere. I woke up yesterday singin' 'A penny a kiss/A penny a hug/Gonna save my pennies in a big brown jug'--a song from 1949. Just this mornin' it was 'Lucky Old Sun.' I mean, these songs keep comin' through me, recyclin' through my brain. There's no gettin' away from the music if I wanted to. It's there. It's part of me. I go to sleep with a song on my mind every night, and it might be a song I don't even especially like. I never thought about bein' without it. I couldn't imagine not havin' music. I can't imagine bein' alive and not havin' a song in my head."

Johnny Cash, with June Carter and Tenderloin. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 17, Boulder Theater, 2013 14th Street, $35-$37, 830-TIXS. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, with Johnny Cash featuring June Carter and John Carpenter Cash, Ashley MacIsaac, Patty Griffin, the Lonesome River Band, the String Cheese Incident, Tony Furtado, Charles Sawtelle and the Whippets, and Cornbread Sally, Thursday, June 19, Telluride; call 449-6007 or 1-800-624-2422 for tickets and camping information.

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