Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
When arguing who is the greatest musician/musical groups of all time, a case could be made for Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or The Beatles. And while there is no definitive answer, there are strong reasons why Johnny Cash should be--at the very least--considered among the best that ever was. Beyond his influential boom-chika-boom country-rock 'n' roll sound and his historic prison albums, Cash was among one of the first true anti-establishment musical pioneers, who always seemed to favor craft over business. There was his decision to leave Sun Records because they wouldn't allow him to record gospel songs. Who the hell left Sun Records in the 50s? Not Elvis. Not Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash did. And of course, there were the endless Cash musical projects that were much more artistic forms of expression than a way to earn a living (they sold very poorly).
Unlike Presley and The Beatles, Cash enjoyed a longer career: 48 years to be precise. And though, he never enjoyed the popularity or numbers that Presley or The Beatles pulled--in volume alone, Cash dwarfed most. But perhaps what makes Cash such an important artist in the pantheon of music artists, was his resurgence under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin.
Throughout the 80s, it seemed fairly certain that Cash had relegated himself and cemented his place as a true American has-been: an artist who had a long-gone golden era and who would occasionally tap into his oldies to make a living--sort of like Don McLean (only with a lot more hits than "American Pie") or even Mike Love and his so-called Beach Boys (only Cash was more like the Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys).
Cash continued playing little honkytonks and dive bars. Although, he continued to make new music, it wasn't slick enough for Nashville nor contemporary enough for mainstream. He wasn't earning new fans, wowing critics nor exciting his die-hards. Cash was just there. Artistically, his career was over, even if he could still bank on nostalgia.
This is the Cash that Rick Rubin found in the early 90s. So Rubin proposed a simple plan: recording Cash in a primitive setting: just an old tired country legend, his enormous baritone and his acoustic guitar. The plan worked. It's important to note that Cash had the same idea nearly 20 years earlier. But it was one of those ideas that either never materialized or he simply thought it was too personal to publish (following his death this body of work was released in a double album titled "Personal File."). Not surprisingly, when Rubin proposed the idea, Cash jumped on it. These came to be known as the American Recordings sessions. Knowing what we know now and understanding that these sessions made Cash's career flourish again and draw a new generation of fans, these sessions could easily be called Johnny Cash's Encore Sessions. After a long, full career, it was almost unprecedented that Cash would have that much great music to offer. But he did. Not only was Cash making relevant, important and critically acclaimed music again, but arguably he left the best stuff for the encore--the twilight of his career.
Although many of the songs in the American Recordings volumes were covers, Cash played them with such grit and honesty, that he made them his. Look no further than Cash's rendition of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt." But he also delivered some of the best original songs of his career--no small feat for the man who gave us country standards such as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." Yes, in his encore, Cash may have been at his very best. It's like if Elvis Presley would have jumped in a gym, tossed the gaudy body suits in some closet in Vegas and been better than the young, handsome man who wowed the youth and pissed off the parents in one hip-shaking swoop back in the '50s.
Simply put: Cash remained relevant until his last gasping breath. Following the death of his beloved June Carter in the spring of 2003, Cash had only one reason to outwit his failing health and broken heart: making music. Rubin literally put a sound engineer at his bed side and whenever Cash was strong enough to record, he did. Talk about not going gently into that good night. Cash kept on keeping on until his death on Sept. 12, 2003--only a few months after June's passing. The result was a handful of contemplative, visceral songs sung by a dying legend with an slowly extinguishing voice. The songs made up most of the two final American Recordings volumes: "American V: A Hundred Highways" and "American VI: Ain't No Grave." American V came out in 2006. American VI will finally be released on Feb. 23 to celebrate what would have been Cash's 78th birthday (Cash was actually born on Feb. 28, 1934).
While there plenty of reason to think Elvis, Michael or the Fab Four had a greater impact, none of them remained so relevant and important. Johnny Cash so loved the world that he gave us such compelling music until death. Among his best songs, were the last original songs he wrote: "The Man Comes Around" and "Like the 309." For this reason, one of the most anticipated songs in the final American Recordings volume will be "I Corinthians 15:55"--the last Cash original we will ever hear.
To read more details about the upcoming album.
UPDATE: Amazon is reporting album will now be available on March 9.