photo & text by nacrowe
AMERICAN icon, folk hero and COUNTRY legend JOHNNY CASH was in the wilderness for decades, figuratively and probably literally, when producer RICK RUBIN resurrected his career with slew of albums for his AMERICAN RECORDINGS label that were largely SPARE, MODEST affairs that put the emphasis back on his songwriting and penchant for STORYTELLING. these records also introduced CASH to an ALTERNATIVE ROCK audience that grew to view him as a CELEBRATED elder statesman of the first order along the lines of LOU REED, DAVID BOWIE or IGGY POP.
the formula of these recordings was a handful of original songs supported by several covers. on the debut AMERICAN RECORDINGS (AMERICAN, 1994) record CASH recorded SPARSE solitary covers of songs by CELEBRATED songwriters like NICK LOWE, LEONARD COHEN, GLENN DANZIG, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON and TOM WAITS. on the follow-up AMERICAN II: UNCHAINED (AMERICAN, 1996) RUBIN decided to introduce more MODERN selections by current songwriters such as BECK, CHRIS CORNELL (SOUNDGARDEN) and TOM PETTY. speaking of PETTY, RUBIN brought in THE HEARTBREAKERS as the backing band to supplement the recordings, which i believe is the only time they ever did such for an artist (other than the follow-up AMERICAN III: SOLITARY MAN). so high was their esteem and respect for CASH.
for me the highlight of the record is his cover of SOUNDGARDEN's signature PLODDING, riff-heavy track "RUSTY CAGE" which CASH transforms into a bit of a dirge. what once felt like a POWERFUL, SELF-AFFIRMING statement instead becomes a tome to SELF-DOUBT and hard lessons gained through PAINFUL lived experience. in my opinion this late career discovery of CASH's capacity for bending established songs to his will would later hit EMOTIONAL pay dirt on his TRANSCENDENT cover of NINE INCH NAILS' peon to SELF-FLAGGELATION, "HURT." this ability served a dual purpose in elevating the material to near FABLED status through the alchemy of his voice and persona, as well as provide a vehicle for ALTERNATIVE ROCK fans of the period to discover him, his history, his artistry and especially his back catalogue.
i came across this record long after the fact. in 1996 i was in AFRICA and the internet was well in its infancy at the time, so CASH was something i associated with grandfather's record collection in NEVADA (of which he sadly unceremoniously trashed for no reason, all those SUN RECORDS 45s, sigh). i didnt even catch him on MTV when i returned stateside that summer, which was how i initially came across GARBAGE, METALLICA, NADA SURF, MEGADETH and RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE among others. discovering his prison recordings would come much later in high school, but when it did i went back and found everything i could including these AMERICAN RECORDINGS which i still feel provided him with a sendoff commiserate with his LEGENDARY and near MYTHICAL cultural stature as a true AMERICAN icon.
RIP JOHNNY CASH.