For anyone who’s paid any attention to Johnny Cash’s career, you’ve probably heard the story about how he got canned by Columbia Records in the 1980s, and had a 4-year run with Mercury before they canned him too. Then along came Rick Rubin, the head of the American Records label. He usually worked with rap and hard rock acts, most especially the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rubin had a plan to revive Johnny Cash’s career: just record Cash with only an acoustic guitar and have him sing the songs Johnny Cash always wanted to sing. Additionally, Rubin would bring contemporary songs to Cash for consideration. Rubin’s production style is a stripped-down style that eliminates string sections, reverb, and few instruments. It’s a very dry sound but it works. The result of this Cash-Rubin partnership was six albums of secular music, one album of gospel music, and a five-disc box set of songs that didn’t make the other albums. That’s not too bad for a career many thought was in the toilet.
Bono of U2 once wrote “Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company…” In the liner notes for Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, The Man In Black wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God.” When you see this list of those American recordings that I like, you’ll see plenty of evidence of Johnny Cash’s like for the darker things.
Hurt [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – The Nine Inch Nails song from The Downward Spiral. Much has been written about Johnny Cash’s rendition. The video of Hurt juxtaposes the younger, rowdier, hell-raising Johnny Cash with the frail old man lamenting “everyone I know goes away in the end.” In the original NIN version, Trent Reznor wears a “crown of shit”, but Johnny Cash turns that into a “crown of thorns,” which made a more direct reference to Jesus. When you hear the bit out the needle tearing a hole in his skin, one can’t help but think of Johnny Cash’s addiction to amphetamines. So when he sings about it, and the need to hurt himself to see if he could still feel something real like pain, you just know he’s saying “been there, done that.” When both Roseanne and Cindy Cash saw the video for the first time, they cried because they thought it was their dad “saying goodbye.” According to Cindy Cash, when her father heard that remark he said “I am.” He knew his time on Earth wasn’t much longer. Perhaps that is the song’s appeal.
Rusty Cage [Unchained – 1996] – This song is the leadoff track from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is the backup band. For some reason, when I hear Rusty Cage, I have to hear it with Hurt back-to-back. I guess its part of the old adage of taking someone else’s song and making it your own, which he certainly does with both Hurt and Rusty Cage. In the booklet that accompanies the Unearthed box set, Rick Rubin describes how he first presented Rusty Cage to Johnny Cash for consideration. He heard the Soundgarden version and thought Rick Rubin was nuts for suggesting it. So Rick Rubin cut a demo that sounded a lot like the version you hear on Unchained and presented that to Cash. He liked what he heard and recorded it.
The Man Comes Around [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – One of the last original Johnny Cash songs. The “Man” in question is Jesus, who will come someday back to pass judgment. The song begins and ends with the spoken word that’s made to sound like it’s coming from an old scratched-up record. The beginning part is the description of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations. The ending part is the description of the “fourth beast”:
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts...
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him…
Most of Johnny Cash’s many Biblical references come from Revelations, but he also draws inspiration from the Books of Luke, Matthew, Acts, and Genesis. He sings of Armageddon, women “trimming their wicks” in preparation of Jesus’ return, God being the “Alpha and Omega,” trumpets, pipers and one million angels singing. One line [in the chorus] came to him in a dream. In this dream Queen Elizabeth told him “Johnny Cash, you’re a thorn bush in a whirlwind.” He later found the same reference in the Book of Job, and wrote “the whirlwind is in the torn tree.” Like most of his American Recordings output, the instrumentation is sparse – two acoustic guitars, a piano and an electric organ. Throughout the song he paints a pretty scary picture. Maybe that’s why I like it.
God’s Gonna Cut You Down [American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – This one is a traditional folk song that is a warning to sinners that no matter how hard they try, they can’t escape God’s final judgment. “God is vengeful and uncompromising, so you better watch out” is the message here. This is some pretty grim stuff. Up until this version was released, no other Johnny Cash song sounded like this – a stomping, clapping rhythm track [think Tom Waits or Queen’s We Will Rock You…].
Like the 309 [American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – At the time of its release, this song was billed as the last song Johnny Cash he wrote. The first song he wrote and recorded, Hey Porter, was about trains, so it was fitting his last song would be a train song as well. He always liked trains, so he could think of nothing better than to have him and his casket taken away on a train – Put me in my box on the 309. He liked songs about death as well, so he got a “twofer” with Like the 309. He pokes fun at his own mortality - Asthma comin’ down like the 309 – after which he wheezes, on purpose. Cash is playing it for a laugh here…
Ain’t No Grave [American VI: Ain’t No Grave – 2010] – Ain’t no grave can hold my body down, so the song goes. This one has footsteps and rattling chains for percussion, as if Johnny Cash is being dragged to his final resting place. The gist of the lyric is pretty simple – no earthly bonds are going to keep Johnny Cash from getting to the promised land - Meet me, Jesus, meet me/Meet me in the middle of the air/And if these wings don’t fail me/I will meet you anywhere/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down. The music has a vibe of doom, complete with rolling banjo, eerie organ chords, minor chord guitars, a tolling bell, but it all works [it does for me, anyway…]. This song is very similar to God’s Gonna Cut You Down.
Redemption Day [American VI: Ain’t No Grave – 2010] – Rarely, if ever, do I have anything positive to say about Sheryl Crow. That having been said, this song of hers seems as if it is tailor-made for Johnny Cash to sing. Crow’s lyrics emphasize those things about which Johnny Cash obsessed – grief, murder, social injustice, salvation. There’s another train reference - There is a train to heaven’s gate. Johnny Cash intones the words freedom…freedom…freedom, one gets the sense that soon he’ll be free of his own frail body and will soon meet his maker.
Further On (Up the Road) [American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – Bruce Springsteen wrote this one. No post-9/11 bravado here – just quiet and somber. But then again, almost everything from A Hundred Highways and Ain’t No Grave is quiet and somber, since both were recorded in that four-month period between June Carter’s death and his own.
The Mercy Seat [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – Here’s another uplifting song; this one from Nick Cave about a guy who is waiting to be executed in the electric chair. There’s some pretty vivid imagery here [The face of Jesus in my soup…I think my head is burning…it’s made of wood and wire, and my body is on fire, and God is never far away…my head is shaved, my head is wired…and the mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is burning…and I think my head is glowing…and the mercy seat is smoking, and I think my head is melting…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…and I’m not afraid to die…]. Acoustic guitar, tack piano and organ accompany Johnny Cash here. Stark, scary, brilliant.
I See a Darkness [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – This is a song by Will Oldham, who goes by the stage name Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy. Best way to describe this one? Haunting…
Rowboat [Unchained – 1996] – This one comes from Beck. This one is a slow burner. You feel the pain [pick me up, bring me some alcohol…] and heartbreak [she don’t wanna be my friend no more/she dug a hole in the bottom of my soul…]. Been there, done that. More backup from Tom Petty and Company. They would’ve made some great shitkickers…
Wayfaring Stranger [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – A spiritual/folk song about the trials and tribulations of the singer’s life. After the hardships of life on Earth comes the journey to a better life. Sheryl Crow plays accordion.
One [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – U2’s song from Achtung Baby. The lyrics describe Bono’s struggles to maintain good relations with the others in the band. There was some marked difference of opinion as to which direction U2’s music should take. The rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr wanted to continue how the band sounded on such things as The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. The Edge and Bono wanted to go more towards alternative rock and electronic dance music. There was a lot of butting heads during the making of Achtung Baby, so much so there was fear the band would break up. Bono says the words are about being “one, but not the same”, and that people have to get along in order for the world to survive. Johnny Cash’s version doesn’t have Bono’s vocal gymnastics, doesn’t have the Edge’s many guitars. It’s a lot more sparse arrangement, and Johnny Cash does well with the song. I’m sure the song takes on a different meaning in Cash’s hands, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know that I like it. This wasn’t the first time that Johnny Cash had sung a U2 song. He had recorded the vocals for the song The Wanderer from Zooropa in 1993 that I really like.
I Hung My Head [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – This is one of Sting’s songs from his Mercury Rising album. It’s a simple tune about a young man who borrows his older brother’s rifle, accidentally kills someone, and then has to face the music for what he did. Having heard both Johnny Cash’s version and Sting’s, I like The Man in Black’s version better - it’s more intimate.
The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] - This is an old one that originated from the Carter Family, and later recorded by the Louvin Brothers. “"Lord have mercy on me” was the drunkard’s plea as he knelt there on the ground to visit his mother’s grave. Pretty straight forward, don’t you think?
Country Boy [Unchained – 1996] – This is one of Johnny Cash’s oldest original songs. It first appeared on the very first album released by Sun Records, With His Hot and Blue Guitar. Recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this is a visitation of Johnny Cash’s rockabilly roots. Good stuff.
Southern Accents [Unchained – 1996] – A Tom Petty original. Johnny Cash remarked this would make a better anthem for the South than Dixie. I guess he really liked the song…
Mean Eyed Cat [Unchained – 1996] – Another Sun song from 1955 recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. According to Johnny Cash: “Mean Eyed Cat took me 40 years to write. I hadn’t finished it in 1955 when, at a session, I sang the first two verses for Sam Phillips. He said “that’s a keeper. I like that.” I said “but it isn’t finished.” He said it was good enough. I was totally surprised when it was released not too long afterward. And all these years, every time I would see the title in print, or hear the song on the radio, I’d cringe. Never once did I do the song on stage, and as the years passed, it bugged me more and more that the song was unfinished. So, about a year ago, I wrote the third verse. When I brought it into these sessions, it was like a new song. Finally, after 41 years, I am satisfied with Mean Eyed Cat.”
I’ve Been Everywhere [Unchained – 1996] – This song was a hit for Hank Snow in 1962. It’s used in some hotel commercial. I always marveled at how fast Johnny Cash could rattle off all those cities without repeating them or stumbling through the words. My sons Mark and Greg really like it - so do I.
I Won’t Back Down [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – Another Tom Petty original.
Delia’s Gone [American Recordings – 1994] – another Cash oldie, first released in 1962 on The Sound of Johnny Cash. This one is a murder ballad about a man killing a vicious and conniving woman. Misogynist? Yup.
Thirteen [American Recordings – 1994] - Glenn Danzig said he wrote this one especially for Johnny Cash in twenty minutes.
The Man Who Couldn’t Cry – [American Recordings – 1994] – Finally there’s some levity for a change, albeit in a sort of tragic, twisted way. This one was written by Loudon Wainwright III. Recorded live in the Viper Room, it details the trials and tribulations of a man that if it wasn’t for bad luck he wouldn’t have any luck at all.
There once was a man who just couldn't cry
He hadn't cried for years and for years
Napalmed babies and the movie love story
For instance could not produce tears
As a child he had cried as all children will
Then at some point his tear ducts ran dry
He grew to be a man, it all hit the fan
Things got bad, but he couldn't cry
His dog got ran over, his wife up and left him
And after that he got sacked from his job
Lost his arm in the war, was laughed at by a whore
Ah, but still not a sniffle or sob
His novel was refused, his movie was panned
And his big Broadway show was a flop
He got sent off to jail; you guessed it, no bail
Oh, but still not a dribble or drop
In jail he was beaten, bullied and buggered
And made to make license plates
Water and bread was all he was fed
But not once did a tear stain his face
Doctors were called in, scientists, too
Theologians were last and practically least
They all agreed sure enough; this was sure no cream puff
But in fact an insensitive beast
He was removed from jail and placed in a place
For the insensitive and the insane
He made lots of friends and played lots of chess
And he wept every time it would rain
Once it rained forty days and it rained forty nights
And he cried and he cried and he cried and he cried
On the forty-first day, he passed away
He just dehydrated and died
Well, he went up to heaven, located his dog
Not only that, but he rejoined his arm
Down below, all the critics, they loot it all back
Cancer robbed the whore of her charm
His ex-wife died of stretch marks, his ex-employer went broke
The theologians were finally found out
Right down to the ground, that old jail house burned down
The earth suffered perpetual drought
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore – [Unearthed – 2003] – What a surprise – a song about trains! It doesn’t stop there anymore because the coal mine closed. It’s an outtake from American III: Solitary Man. June Carter recorded it for her Press On album, so it’s a Carter-Cash family favorite. The first time Johnny Cash recorded this one was in 1979 for his album Silver, the same album as (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.
Big Iron – [Unearthed – 2003] – This one is an old Marty Robbins song. Joe Strummer thought it embodied the romance of outlaws and gunfights of the Old West.
Redemption Song – [Unearthed – 2003] – the Bob Marley classic and duet with Joe Strummer. Johnny Cash wanted to do a song from Jamaica, and he picked this one. He loved Jamaica, he owned a house there. Joe Strummer ended up doing it himself on his Streetcore album.
Trouble In Mind – [Unearthed – 2003] – This is a slow blues from Bob Wills, the man Waylon Jennings called “the King of Western Swing” in Bob Wills is Still the King. Recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for Unchained but left off the album. Why? This one is great!
I’m a Drifter – [Unearthed – 2003] – This one came from the pen of Dolly Parton. There are two versions with Tom Petty and Company – acoustic and electric. I like them both. It’s another song left off of Unchained. They definitely had too many songs for that album.
The Running Kind – [Unearthed – 2003] – This is Merle Haggard song is a duet with Tom Petty. Johnny Cash told Rick Rubin a story about a Merle Haggard show in the South where the audience was so into the song and stomping their feet that the balcony collapsed. Johnny Cash liked a song that could cause so much commotion, so that’s why he recorded it.
Long Black Veil – [Unearthed – 2003] – This song was first done by Lefty Frizzell in 1959. Johnny Cash recorded this once before in 1965 for his Orange Blossom Special album. It’s about a man accused of murder who refused to provide an alibi because he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. He was executed rather reveal his secret. The song described how the woman in question would visit his grave while wearing a long black veil. The story is told from the point of view of the executed man. The Band also did this song on Music From Big Pink.
That’s a lot of songs, more than can fit on one CD, but then that’s why Apple invented the iPod, right? As with all things, these selections are just one pinhead’s point of view – mine! If you get the chance, check these out. I don’t think you will be disappointed.