December 4, 2003

Johnny Cash: Back in Black

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The sprawling five-disc box set from the iconic country legend Johnny Cash titled Unearthed arrives this week from American Recordings/Lost Highway. The set, which features 79 songs (64 of them previously unreleased) documents what was arguably the most unexpected and important musical collaboration of the last decade. The tracks are culled from sessions with Mr. Cash and producer Rick Rubin for their four American Recordings albums. Mr. Rubin, a noted rock and rap producer who began his career working with acts like the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C, first approached Mr. Cash after a concert in Orange County, California in 1993. After some initial hesitation, Mr. Cash agreed to a deal with Mr. Rubin’s American Recordings Company. Using a minimalist approach and recording in Mr. Rubin’s living room, the partnership resulted in the Grammy-winning American Recordings in 1994. Ten more discs were planned for the series of albums, but due to Mr. Cash’s death in September, only four have been released to date. A fifth volume of new material is a due out next year and the sessions are said to have produced well over a hundred other songs that will likely trickle out in the coming years.

The tracks on Unearthed are, almost without exception, staggeringly powerful performances. The new releases are astonishingly, but beautifully, stark representations of songs both old and new. Indeed, as Neil Strauss noted recently in The New York Times, “With his last recordings, the power comes from the resignation, vulnerability, and honesty in Cash’s voice as he reflects on his own mortality.”

The set features a myriad of musical guests ranging from old acquaintances like Willie Nelson to newer collaborators like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who served as Cash’s backing band on the second volume of American Recordings).

The first three discs in this collection feature highlights that never made their way onto any of the American Recordings discs. They include such tracks as solo acoustic versions of old favorites like “Banks of the Ohio,” “Flesh and Blood,” and covers of tunes from Steve Earle, Roy Orbison, Neil Young, and others.

The second and third discs boast several duets worth a particularly close listen. When Carl Perkins joins Mr. Cash on guitar for a run through the familiar “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” it almost sounds as if you could be listening in on a Sun Records session from the 1950s. The late Clash lead singer Joe Strummer also shows up on a cover of reggae legend Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Mr. Petty and his band appear on “The Running Kind.”

The fourth Unearthed disc is subtitled “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” and is comprised of 15 songs from a book of hymns Mr. Cash’s mother read to him as a child. This disc is perhaps the most moving of the set, as Cash performs traditional spirituals including “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” “I am a Pilgrim,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and “In the Sweet By and By.”

The final disc is a “best of” representation of the four albums Mr. Cash released with Mr. Rubin behind the board. 1994’s American Recordings, 1996’s Unchained, 2000’s American III: Solitary Man and last year’s American IV: The Man Comes Around are all represented. Highlights here include a rendition of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” which garnered numerous awards for Mr. Cash. His music video for the track, which he performs with simply an acoustic guitar and dark, gritty vocals, was also much lauded and received numerous accolades.

The set is handsomely packaged and includes a hard cover 103-page clothbound book featuring commentary on all 79 cuts. Mr. Cash, Mr. Rubin, and others involved in the making of the recordings offer insights and recollections that will be of interest to even the most casual listener.

While these cuts — with the exception of those on the fifth “best of” disc — never made it onto any of the first four American Recordings volumes, nearly all of the material could have been a highlight of the Grammy-winning series. Indeed, in terms of quality, the work showcased here rivals even Mr. Cash’s early releases with Sun Records. Mr. Cash was truly a national treasure and his work remains an immeasurable influence on American popular music. This set goes a long way towards documenting the last chapter of the remarkable career of the Man in Black.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb