The Long Black Trail: Johnny Cash's Last Stand

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Rick Rubin, has recently gone from being an interesting producer and personality in my eyes, to perhaps one of the coolest living humans. See, if it weren't for Rubin, we might not have the Man in Black.

Don't get me wrong, Johnny Cash would still have existed. The man from Arkansas that at one time stood at the pinnacle of Pop Culture would still have recorded a lot of records. Real Country fans would still mention him with other legends, like Willie, Waylon, and Hank. He still would have married June, and written a soul-baring, self-titled book. But the Man in Black, the prophet of country and folk music, might never have entered popular consciousness.

In the 80's the Country Music industry looked to young talent like Garth Brooks, and Clint Black and largely discarded the old guard. Artists like Johnny, who had once been the ambassador for country music, found themselves unloved and unwanted. He parted ways with one record label because they couldn't (or wouldn't) support his records. He had a short stint with Mercury Records (as well as a reunion with his old Sun Records partners, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) but it was Rick Rubin's invitation to American Recordings that stuck.

Rick Rubin and American were known for heavy metal acts and of course hip-hop, (Rubin was one of the founders of Def Jam Records). This might have seemed like an odd pairing, but Rubin's idea to pare down production and record Johnny and his guitar alone in the living room apparently spoke to Cash, and then to the world. American Recordings was released in 1994 to critical acclaim, but was completely ignored by Country Radio. MTV however did air the video for the first track "Delia's Gone." It was this exposure that provided the foundation for Johnny's acceptance into the most unlikely of groups, alternative rockers.

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The second collaboration from Rubin and Cash Unchained featured back up from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and won Cash the Grammy for Best Country Album. American III: Solitary Man continued the streak of critical and commercial successes, despite continued apathy from mainstream country music. The Man in Black and his new sidekick, Rick Rubin, were bigger than country music now, and they showed it with a full page ad in Billboard Magazine.

American IV: The Man Comes Around was released in 2002, as Johnny's health worsened and included a soul-wrenching version of "Hurt" a Trent Reznor song. This was seen by many as the pinnacle of the already fabulous American Recordings. The video for Hurt became all the more poignant when in May of 2003, June Carter Cash, Johnny's wife and best friend, passed away. As June had requested before her death, Johnny kept recording right up until his own death less than four months later. There were roughly sixty recordings during this period that Rick Rubin at first ignored and later returned to, in an effort to finish what he and Johnny started.

American V: A Hundred Highways will be released July 4th, 2006. It contains twelve tracks, including the last song Cash ever wrote, "Like the 309." Throughout the album, you can hear the weakness in Johnny's body, as well as his longing for the next life. The strong points of the album are, the traditional "God's Gonna Cut You Down," "Like the 309," Bruce Springsteen's "Further on Up the Road," and Don Gibson's "A Legend in My Own Time." The entire album though bears listening to over and over again. An artist at the peak of his emotional creativity if not his physical abilities, and a producer, in tune with the artist and the music in a way that few ever achieve.

The extra good news is that Rubin is not done with J. R. Cash. American VI is Rick Rubin's current project. He has said in interviews that it is currently about halfway done, and should be released sometime within the next year. If it is anything like its predecessors it can't come soon enough.

Do yourself a favor and pick up the new album this Fourth of July. And when you do thank Rick Rubin. He didn't make the Man in Black but he let the man within be heard.

"You've got a song you're singing from your gut, you want that audience to feel it in their gut. And you've got to make them think that you're one of them sitting out there with them too. They've got to be able to relate to what you're doing." -- Johnny Cash 1932-2003