Four large letters printed across the top of a black and white photo on a CD cover: CASH. A picture of him sitting quietly, microphone hanging before him, head bowed, eyes closed and listening to the music track over headphones.
Waiting for his cue to sing, it is hard to tell if the expression on his face is one of humility, impatience, reverence or disappointment. But was it ever really possible to tell with Johnny Cash? The covers of the American Records’ Cash series all look much the same and are likely intended to play into the common perception of Cash as an artist, yet in truth they say just as much about how Rick Rubin has chosen to present the music of an undeniable American music legend. Simplicity. It is hard to believe no one ever really thought of using it again, regarding the art of J.R. Cash.
Rubin picked Cash up off the trash heap in 1993, mostly ignored if not forgotten by the Nashville money-making machine, and promptly went about what seems like common sense now but then seemed like a complete waste of time and energy to many. Rubin let Cash do what he does best: honesty. Thankfully, the public was interested enough that Cash recovered a little of what he was due and we the public recovered Cash although almost a little too late. From his early days as a pioneer of rockabilly and rock and roll in the 1950s to his country and gospel work there has always been more than just a pinch of the dangerous and contentious with Cash. Anyone paying attention lately is already aware the frailer, older and at-peril man often carries more emotional punch in his songs than the younger, more pissed off version for the simple reason that Cash was now endangered himself.
Obviously, Cash came to be a man capable of accepting the concept of the world without him in it — and was willing to put it down for the record how a life lived and soon to be lost made him feel.
There was nothing quite as bleak as “Hurt” on the fifth American release of Cash music (properly and logically titled American V: A Hundred Highways) — and maybe that is a good thing. Still, there was plenty capable of shaking you up, such as the first track: “Help Me,” a plea to God for the strength to take just a few more steps or at least a little understanding of why things have to be the way they are. Then there was “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” a bluesy reminder of the inevitable and obvious. “Like The 309,” appropriately enough, was the last song Cash ever wrote. It is about a train, a coffin and taking that last ride we all have to eventually take.
American V then followed the blueprint of the previous American recordings, including remakes of his own earlier released material as well as songs made notable by others, including Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams, and Gordon Lightfoot. Frequently these covers make it apparent just how capable Cash was at making a song his own, and the scope of his ability to tell a story or conjure up emotion long faded away.
The bedrock of faith and hope Cash possessed even in the face of uncertainty show up in the middle portion of the recording. “I Came To Believe” can almost certainly be taken as an explanation of the duel state of faithful and fallen where Cash often seemed to exist. Cash also reminds us of the trials, tribulations and simple joys of relationships on “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “A Legend In My Time.” Finally, the last two tracks hit the themes of moving on and finally becoming free — meant, perhaps, to speak to us of acceptance and redemption.
American V is a simple, dignified and beautiful yet challenging album. It dealt with harsh truths, all the while not forgetting the simple pleasures. The body and voice may at this point have become ruined instruments but no attempt was made to pass Cash off as anything but what he still was. For the music industry, these recordings should give them reason to stop and ponder some of the “artists” they artificially produce on the mixing board. We all know that is none too likely to happen.
Meanwhile, Cash’s legacy was, of course, already established. But the music with Rubin provided a remarkable capstone. Something miraculous happened with Johnny Cash at the end of his life — and that is a very good thing. Like the rest of his work, this will stick.
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