Friday, October 23, 2009


SIDETRIPS

Johnny Cash's Tower of Song

Johnny Cash
Unearthed
(American Recordings, 2003)
*****

By Luke Torn

Johnny Cash is one of those giants, like Dylan or Miles Davis, about whom it’s daunting to even contemplate writing about him. What can be said that hasn’t been said before? What can be said that isn’t right there in the grooves of the music, in his case half a century's worth? However, in response to Unearthed, the absurdly generous collection of American Recordings session outtakes released last autumn, I have to say this: Thank God for Rick Rubin.

The estimable Mr. Rubin, in 1993, had the means (production successes with everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Slayer) and the vision to contemplate what no other punter in the music industry could fathom: Sit Johnny Cash, the veritable oak tree of American music, a song collector on par with the great A.P. Carter, in front of a single microphone, with not much more than a lone acoustic guitar, and roll tape. This simple gesture posited the great unwashed of American popular culture of the '90s and '00s with some eight CDs of remarkably vibrant, liberating, visionary music.

With all pretension of the marketplace removed, and the music peeled back to its very essence, Cash relished the opportunity like a man on death row given a new lease on life. Whether tackling songs by Will Oldham or Merle Haggard, Trent Reznor or Dolly Parton, Nick Cave or Jimmy Webb, Cash, time and again, drew a demarcating line in the sand with song. He rediscovered his voice in songs both ancient and brand new. And it’s the power of song, the belief in its transcendent and redemptive qualities, that’s played out over and over on Unearthed, and throughout the incredible body of work known as the American Recordings.

Rubin's entrance into Cash's professional life brought with it an air of liberation, a freedom from expectation borne out of record labels and producers watching only the bottom line, a freedom from beancounters and demographics, and a chance to for a great artist to operate from instinct, as songs like Marty Robbins' great western ballad "Big Iron" and Stephen Foster's timeless "Hard Times" (both on Unearthed) attest. Like Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes--wherein the Voice of His Generation managed to lock out the chaos raging around him and lay down cuts by everyone from Luke the Drifter to Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, or indeed like the whole of the early Sun rockabilly recordings by Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins, most of which are nothing if not the sound of sex, booze, youth, and freedom in the American South, Cash (in his twilight years no less) was afforded a blank slate, a blank check.

You can hear that in Cash’s voice, a hunger, as if everything's on the line again—and it’s not about money, career, or prestige. It’s about mindfulness, family, the power and transforming qualities of art and music (see Bono’s "One" and the Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne composition "I Won't Back Down" on American III for twin approaches on this subject), and most of all faith. And when he gets his hands around a truly great song, like Steve Earle's "Devil's Right Hand" (on Unearthed) or the driving Nick Cave/PJ Harvey composition "The Mercy Seat," or Cash's own gem "Flesh and Blood," or, indeed, Trent Reznor's "Hurt," with only a few lines or the strum of a guitar he opens a chasm that separates the kind of throwaway, wallpaper pop culture we wallow in these days from something altogether more dramatic: the real thing, the art of song, which implies a sense of history, of social responsibility, and challenging listeners (and their attendant assumptions) to see something of themselves in the cold blooded murderer in "Banks of the Ohio," or the rambling determination and restlessness of "Going to Memphis."

The point is, that Cash--a man of faith but also a man of truth and a seeker--is a gleaming example of not just artistic integrity and perseverance. The stark simplicity of the murder ballads, the soulful singing on the incredible gospel numbers included in Unearthed, and the ability to reach back 40 years and still cut some feral rockabilly, resonate through history precisely because they're not shot through with the kind of cute and ironic distance, the post-modern hipness we've come to expect from popular art of all kinds. The performances on all of the American Recordings represent the absolute opposite of the seething cynicism that saturates American culture these days, they're like a rope extended to the drowning man

I know it's counter-intuitive in this day and age, especially when record company profits are threatened from every angle, but I'd plead with producers, labels, and A&R folks everywhere to consider the example laid down by Rubin and Cash. The mind reels with the possibilities already gone: singer for the Band Richard Manuel had an incredible body of work in him that, given the musical trends of the 1980s, had no chance for an audition; likewise Gene Clark, Tim Hardin, Roy Buchanan, lost souls for whom there was no place in the music business toward the end of their lives, went to their graves without a second glance. Among the living, there's endless possibility: Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, Jackson Browne, Buddy Guy, Joe Ely, Linda Ronstadt, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Swamp Dogg, Hazel Dickens, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom T. Hall, Ralph Stanley, Arlo Guthrie and dozens more. In the name of preserving and documenting the cultural importance of song in this country, these extraordinary artists should be afforded the Rubin treatment. After all, it's about the music, and ultimately, the song, and to my mind that's what Unearthed, and indeed the totality of Cash's enormous and prolific body of work teaches us. Take one listen to the Cash/Joe Strummer duet, on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" (or any of a another dozen I could easily list here) on Unearthed, and tell me I'm wrong.

1 comment:

adaptive reUse said...

I would love to see a working list of more of the living artists that should be given the "Rubin treatment." It could be especially interesting in light of the publicity surrounding Roseanne's "The List."