There's not a whole lot 71-year old country legend Johnny Cash hasn't achieved in his 46 year career as a recording musician. He's recorded more than 1,500 songs - 48 of them which have even crossed over into Billboard's Top 100 Pop charts. He's not only garnered 11 Grammy awards, but has also taken home just about every other conceivable music achievement award known to man; songwriting, video, and lifetime achievement awards, just to mention a few. He was the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame and, other than Elvis Presley who later followed him, is the only person that has ever been inducted into both the Country and Rock Music Hall of Fames.
Considering that his health has been spiraling downward over the past few years - including a couple of near death experiences - Cash has surprisingly, however, continued to turn out a prolific amount of material throughout the last decade. What's even more surprising is that with all of this later material, subtitled American Recordings and entirely produced under the guidance of Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys and Slayer, among others), Cash has created a four volume set of honest, stripped-down, harrowing music that rivals even his best work from the late '50s and early '60s.
Despite Nashville and the country music industry ignorantly turning their back on this powerful material and Cash's own musical legacy, not only has The Man in Black retained many of his longtime fans, but with the help of Rubins, as well as his recent video of Trent Reznor's song "Hurt" (arguably the most moving music video of all time) he's also quickly gaining acceptance from a brand new audience - the young and hip.
Livewire is proud to present Johnny Cash speaking candidly and with great passion about his latest accomplishment, American IV: The Man Comes Around.
How do you think The Man Comes Around compares to the three other albums in your "American Recordings" series?
Cash: I firmly believe that it's the best record I've done for American. We put more blood, sweat, and tears and love into this one than anything we've ever done. It reaches out even farther and in more directions than the others did-the simplicity of Nick Cave and I singing "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" with just a couple of guitars, and some of the pop songs that no one would ever in a hundred years think of me singing, me included, until I heard myself singing it. It goes in so many different directions but they all come together in a one-ness with me, that I could make these songs my own. They come together in being my songs.
Is there a theme to The Man Comes Around album?
Cash: The theme is spirit, the human spirit more than the spiritual or godly spirit, the human spirit fighting for survival. It probably reflects a little of the maturity that I've experienced with the pain that I've suffered with the illnesses that brought me so close to death.
Can you describe the process of selecting the songs?
Cash: I listen to everything that people bring me. I get my coffee early in the morning and I listen to some music, usually to songs that were submitted to me the day before. I start recording the songs that I couldn't get over - the ones I just had to get out. I brought a pocketful of songs to every session, and if I couldn't sing this one, I'd sing that one. In the middle of taping something that wasn't quite working, I'd just start a new song. And that always worked-to alternate, to go to something that I could do. We wound up with about 32 songs that I liked and wanted to record, and then came the painful process of weeding them out to the ones that made the final cut.
What's the story behind the title song of the album?
Cash: The idea for "The Man Comes Around" started as a dream I had about seven years ago, in Nottingham, England. I dreamed I was in Buckingham Palace and Queen Elizabeth said, "Johnny Cash, you're just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind." I couldn't figure out what that meant, and I couldn't get it out of my head. I did a lot of Bible research and started to turn some things up, and I started writing a few years later. I wrote dozens and dozens of verses - I thought it was just going to be one of my weird poems but I started seeing a song forming. I never had a writing project that I put in as much time and as much writing, as I did that song. I new I was overwriting, but I had to get it out.
The most surprising selections on the album are probably "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails and "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode. Why did you choose those songs?
Cash: I think "Hurt" is the best anti-drug song I ever heard. It's a song about a man's pain and what we're capable of doing to ourselves and the possibility that we don't have to do that anymore. I could relate to that from the very beginning. As for "Personal Jesus," that 's probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded. I don't know that the writer meant it to be that, but that's what it is.
Why did you decide to go back to some of your own classic songs, such as "Streets of Larado" and "Give My Love to Rose?"
Cash: "Laredo" I recorded in the '60s but wasn't happy with the recording, not at all. This time we made it the song I really wanted to record. "Give My Love To Rose" came up on the spur of the moment in the studio, and I think it's also better than the original recording.
Where was this version of "Danny Boy" recorded?
Cash: We recorded in the Episcopal church in Los Angeles. The session lasted about two hours and it was over - just exactly the way we had hoped and planned and prayed it would be. It really adds an element that I've never had on record before, never had anything like that.
Some of the songs, like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The First time Ever I Saw Your Face," are so identified with the vocals on their hit records. Was that a factor in how you approached them?
Cash: The way I approach a song, I have to love the song up front first. But I knew that with those songs, I couldn't sing them the way they were recorded - and I didn't want to sing them that way, I wanted to sing them my way. I wanted to make them my songs. And if I'm recording and it doesn't begin to feel that way, I just throw it out.
Did your health effect the recording of the album at all?
Cash: I worked on this album in spite of everything. I found strength to work just to spite this disease. Sometimes I came to the studio and I couldn't sing - I came in with no voice when I could have stayed at home and pouted in my room and cried in my beer or my milk, but I didn't let that happen. I came in and opened up my mouth and tried to let something come out. There are tracks I recorded when that was the last thing in the world I thought I could do, and those are the ones that have the feeling and the fire and the fervor and the passion - a great deal of strength came out of that weakness.
How did you first hook up with Rick Rubin, and what effect do you think it's had on your career?
Cash: It was 1991 or '92. Rick came to my dressing room after a show saying he wanted to make a record of just me and my guitar singing my favorite songs. It was the same as a concept I had years ago I called Johnny Cash Late and Alone. I auditioned in his house, in his living room, with his dogs running around at my feet, and we made our first record right there. When I first started recording with Rick, word got out that I was "happening," whatever that meant. But I really felt it was - like something really was happening. It felt really good to know that there was a possibility that I had an audience among the young people out there. Working with Rick has been a really joyful period of growth artistically for me.