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The Redemption of Johnny Cash

From Schmaltz to Alt Rock Star

May. 23, 2011
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Johnny Cash became an elder statesman of alt country, alt rock and all things alternative by the time of his death in 2003. Ten years earlier few could have foreseen the turnaround in his fortunes. Through the '70s and '80s the Man in Black was lost in a wilderness of schmaltz and unconvincing gestures, stumbling between unsuitable projects with occasionally inspired moments. Christianity had always been a theme or contrast in his work, but during those years Cash associated himself with Billy Graham and other fundamentalist Protestant media shows. He was a smart person in bad company, wrestling with problems stemming from abuse of the amphetamines and barbiturates commonly used by country musicians in the '50s.

Surrounded by sycophants and enmeshed in a Nashville industry without a creative pulse, he became, in the words of Graeme Thomson's The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings (Jawbone Press), "the anti-Vietnam, pro-American, gospel-preaching, outlaw-loving, Bible-reading countercultural libertarian, patriotic country icon." Thomson adds: "It confused people, perhaps even the man who was singing the songs."

Cash had always ridden up and down the road of cool, climbing peaks and walking through valleys along the journey. His archetypal early recordings for Sun in the 1950s were pared to an aching simplicity that cast a shadow over the imagination of future rock artists and critics. He was rockabilly without much rock and little of the billy, closest to country but restless in its bosom. His first decade with Columbia produced highs and lows, raising questions of whether the man behind the voodoo mariachi of "Ring of Fire" was also manipulated by his producers into releasing schlock or if he really had a saccharine addiction in addition to his pill problems. His original TV show presented a persona that was somehow country but somehow impossible to peg. And then he devolved into an awful road show with the whole Cash-Carter family as his personal Sound of Music chorus.

The irony was that Cash and his handlers kept the act on the road long after they passed the final dead end. His shows reeked of mothballs and yet discerning listeners could hear an echo of something great lost amid the crumbling spectacle. Cash was an unhappy man, especially when the new team running Columbia let him go for not selling enough "units." The bottom line wasn't favorable and the accountants who seized control of the music industry had no sense for legacy.

Fortunately, hipsters outside the Nashville establishment had a greater sense of history. Chief among them was the mystically inclined hip-hop heavy metal producer Rick Rubin, whose heavy beard and intense eyes suggested a medieval rabbi on the road with ZZ Top. Rubin has been accorded the honor of single-handedly turning Cash around with a series of late life albums for the ultra-hip American Records. But as Thomson finds, it wasn't so simple. Cash was sporadically in search of a way to reconnect with the enduring persona he cast with "Fulsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." There were glimmers of hope in 1983 when Cash recorded a pair of stark Springsteen songs, "Johnny 99" and "Highway Patrolman." During the '80s Nick Lowe recorded some of Cash's dark songs and even George Thorogood's rendition of "Cocaine Blues" was a reminder of great things past. British post-punk acts began organizing tribute albums and before long, Cash was asked to sing "The Wanderer" on U2's Zooropa (1993). The stage was gradually being set but it took a shrewd director like Rubin to bring the new Cash production to life.

Cash said that in working with Rubin, he "discovered" himself. What might be even truer is that Cash finally grasped the part of himself hipsters found cool. In any event, Rubin didn't engineer a reinvention as much as a distillation that filtered out the dross. Cash was always pulled in many directions, including conventions of songwriting and touring that had long been obsolete, before meeting Rubin. But there had always been more to him. "Cash is part of that old, weird America of phantoms and demons, angels and devils, strange handed-down fables and darkness gathering in the trees, a sadness that can't be named, a beauty too fragile to hold too tight," Thomason writes. Rubin helped Cash realize his connection to that Greil Marcus vision of an America largely paved over and homogenized but still vital to the mythology of our nation.


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