By Alex Rice
The Man in Black. The man who had a thousand violent criminals eating out of the palm of his hand at Folsom State Prison. The man who basically told Richard Nixon to fuck himself when the 37th President of the United States requested he play the anti-public assistance novelty anthem “Welfare Cadillac” at a White House summit for prison reform.
The man who was terrified to go onstage in front of 250 people.
Johnny Cash had never performed in public alone before producer Rick Rubin urged him to try out some of the material they were working on for a live audience. There was no elbow room at the Sunset Strip’s 250-capacity Viper Room on December 3, 1993, when a new generation of fans filled the joint to witness the man, the myth, the legend play in a most intimate of settings.
They hooped and hollered when the protagonist of Eddy Arnold’s “Tennessee Stud” gunned down a gambler, as fervently as crowds once had when they heard Cash’s subversive lyrics about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him to die. Loudon Wainwright III’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” inspired tears of laughter, packing all the twisted comedic punch that “A Boy Named Sue” had two dozen years prior. The distinct sonic atmosphere evident in those performances couldn’t have possibly been bested by studio takes, so Cash and Rubin simply used the live versions on American Recordings, the singer’s debut for the bearded genius’s imprint of the same name. In fact, the rest of the LP’s 11 “studio” tunes were originally laid down as demos before Rubin decided they were powerful enough to revive a storied career.
Cash had been dropped by Columbia in 1986, and all you have to do is look at the artwork for Boom Chicka Boom or The Mystery of Life to know how his abbreviated stint on Mercury Records had gone after that. The country music behemoth Cash was instrumental in building abandoned him in the ‘80s, and neither his critical nor commercial profile had ever been lower. That all changed with American Recordings, the first of six installments in a series that gave him the opportunity to enter the twilight of his career with dignity and garnered him more acclaim, perhaps, than ever. Donning an imposingly stark visual of Cash flanked by two dogs (one black and one white, representing the good vs. evil duality that lies at the heart of so much of his work) on its sleeve, American was voted the seventh best album of 1994 in The Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop Poll and landed a Grammy the following year. American II: Unchained (1996) and American III: Solitary Man (2000) were thrilling sequels, maintaining the darkly elegant and isolated air of the first Cash-Rubin collaboration while sporting cameos from an all-star cast of musicians - Tom Petty, Flea, Marty Stuart and Sheryl Crow among them.
The clouds of death hang over the entirety of the American series, from the initial LP’s “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” to the undead title track from 2006’s posthumous American VI: Ain’t No Grave. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), though, is the crown jewel of the American years, chronicling Johnny’s final steps on a funereal march that came to an end on September 12, 2003. That’s when he succumbed to complications from diabetes - and probably a broken heart - at the age of 71, just four months after June passed. On the final record released in his lifetime, opener “The Man Comes Around” is the sound of him realizing that the grim reaper is just around the corner, while his award-winning cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” reads like one last letter of apology for his years in the drug-fueled wilderness. The penultimate solo rendition of eternal cowboy hymn “Streets of Laredo” serves as a jaw-dropping last will and testament. Men died at the end of Johnny Cash songs all the time, but now he was leaving along with them.
Johnny Cash’s work with Rick Rubin in the 1990s and early 2000s cemented his legacy - not as a Memphis has-been, but as an American always-will-be. After a decade in the desert, there was redemption for the original sinner of country music.