Discs of Fire

A new boxed set highlights the genius of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash never did know how to give up the ghost, nor did he want to. He combined sin and salvation, first succumbing to the temptation of drugs, then conquering the addiction as he merged his pioneering rock & roll style with older, more timeless genres. Over the course of six decades, Cash blended rock, folk and country into a new and unique folkloric approach. A contradictory and unintentional oracle, Cash loved amphetamines and Ronald Reagan, advocated for Native Americans and created a unique canon spanning the gothic rockabilly of "Ring of Fire," the Tarantino surrealism of "Folsom Prison Blues," the Americana of "Great Speckled Bird." It was all music to Johnny Cash.

Four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, Johnny passed away on September 12 from diabetes-related complications. Too bad he never got a chance to hear the final mix of Cash Unearthed, a new boxed set of his American Recordings. The 79 tracks stem from sessions Cash did with label founder Rick Rubin between 1993 and 2003 in Los Angeles and Nashville. The first four discs are previously unreleased material; the fifth is a strong compilation of American Recordings tunes, ending with "Hurt," Cash's painfully honest maturation of Trent Reznor's bitter junkie ballad. Cash Unearthed is a revelation and an affirmation.

The albums Cash released over the past decade -- American Recordings, Unchained, American III: Solitary Man and last year's unusually eerie and dark American IV: The Man Comes Around -- are touchstones of American popular music. Produced by rap-metal pioneer Rubin, they focus on Cash's voice, guitar and sensibility. They made the Man in Black an even more mythic figure: On these recordings, Cash often resembled the pale rider, death himself. Perhaps that's one reason the Cash original "The Man Comes Around" -- presented in different versions on two of the Unearthed CDs -- is especially chilling and powerful. Not only does the box contain a great deal of "new" music, its hardbound, 104-page booklet is packed with Cash's own commentary as well as contributions from many of his collaborators, including Tom Petty, Nick Cave and Rubin. It also features a track-by-track discussion by Cash, Rubin and others involved in the recordings.

Goddamn, Johnny Cash was cool
Andy Earl
Goddamn, Johnny Cash was cool

Rubin has said all he ever wanted to do was to record Cash singing all the songs he ever loved, and he did that here -- particularly on the fourth disc. My Mother's Hymn Book is a thoroughly spiritual, naked album of fifteen tunes from the Baptist spiritual tradition Cash shared with his mother. It's plainspoken, fervent, understated and almost unbearably real: Cash recorded Hymn Book with longtime engineer David Ferguson in July, just after his wife's death.

"Every record that I've been involved with [that] Rick [made] with Johnny, none of them are rejects," says Ferguson, who engineered albums that Cash made for American and for Mercury, his previous label. "They were just songs that didn't fit in with the concept of whatever record he was doing at the time. It's not that the quality wasn't there. It was just not what they were wanting to portray at the time." The idea for Cash Unearthed was not a recent one, says Ferguson. "Johnny knew all about the boxed set, and Johnny was into it. I would send Johnny CDs about what we were thinking about having on the boxed set, and he would listen to them and give his feedback."

The box's numerous guest artists include late Clash frontman Joe Strummer (on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"), volatile chanteuse Fiona Apple (on Cat Stevens' "Father and Son"), Carl Perkins (on Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man") and old buddies Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (on a cool version of Neil Young's surreal "Pocahontas").

Next to the terrific hymn disc, volume two of the collection, (subtitled Trouble in Mind) is the strongest, featuring a rendition of Roy Orbison's "Down the Line" that's almost as good as the one Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun 50 years ago, along with two very different takes on Dolly Parton's lovely "I'm a Drifter" and a rocking rendition of Steve Earle's great anti-gun tune, "The Devil's Right Hand."

The collection attests to Cash's and Rubin's appetites, and even more material is likely to surface, including an American V. "I think there are still a few things in the well," Ferguson says. "Johnny had recorded about 50 songs for this last album, the new album, American V, but there aren't 50 keepers there, because he hadn't finished singing some of them." All the same, fifteen to twenty tracks are usable and will form the basis of a new Cash record sometime next year.

Although Ferguson has engineered U2, pub-rocker Ian Gomm and numerous folk and country acts, "I always felt I was on top of the world anytime I was behind the boards recording Johnny Cash, because to me, it was the most important job in the world. I knew I was lucky to be doing it, every time I ever did it. I never took it for granted. And I knew some day it would end."

Not only was Cash struggling with his debilitation all the way to his death -- which was made disturbingly apparent in the video for "Hurt," a clip so spare and forceful it made June Carter Cash cry -- he was also crafting new material.

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