Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hurtin' With Johnny Cash

Mr Cash was born on this date in 1932.  He burst on the country music scene in the mid-1950s with songs like I Walk The Line and for the next twenty five years had a successful run on the country and pop charts and even hosted a network TV show in the late 1960s, enticing Bob Dylan into a rare appearance.

By the early 1980s times had changed and his records stopped selling.  He was dropped by Columbia Records, his long-time label and went through a rough patch both artistically and physically, including double bypass surgery and a recurrence of the drug problems that plagued him in the 1950s and 60s.  His artistic resurrection was to come from an unusual direction.

In 1993, he was approached by producer Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam Records and launcher of the careers of groups like Public Enemy, Run - DMC and The Beastie Boys.  After leaving Def Jam he'd gone on to produce for heavy metals bands like Slayer and Danzig and alternative rock acts like The Jesus And Mary Chain, all of which (Rubin) were about as far from Johnny Cash's music as you can get.  Rubin persuaded Cash to sign with his American Recordings label and to do albums that featured on Johnny on vocals, guitar and piano with only occasional instrumental backup and recording songs by other artists picked by Rubin and Cash and arranged by Rick.

The partnership proved to be very successful with Johnny recording six albums during the last decade of his life, achieving critical and public success and winning several Grammy Awards.  During this period his health was deteriorating due to a neuro-degenerative disease and diabetes but the music and his wife of more than thirty years, June Carter, kept him going.  Apparently everyone expect Johnny to pass away before June but she died unexpectedly in May 2003 after heart surgery.  Johnny died in September.

From Letters Of Note here are two notes Cash wrote, one on the occasion of June's 65th birthday in 1994 and the second shortly after her death in 2003.

Let's listen to three songs from Cash's recordings with Rick Rubin.  His voice is ravaged, rough and soulful.

The first is Solitary Man a song written by Neil Diamond in the mid-1960s (and one of his first hits).  It was also used in the closing credits of the 2009 movie, SolitaryMan, starring Michael Douglas in one of his patented cranky older guy roles.  It's quite a good film but despite the linked trailer it is definitely not a bouncy feel-good film.

The second is the Tom Petty tune I Won't Back Down.

The final one and the most emotionally wrenching and stunning music video I've ever seen is Hurt, written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  The combination of the lyric and the visual, with a visibly sick and aged Cash contrasted with his younger vibrant self, is overwhelming.  It was done less than a year before the deaths of Johnny and June (who also appears in it) and his daughter, Roseanne Cash, called it a "living eulogy" and said that they showed it to her before the public release so she would be prepared.  It's the last thing in this post because I've found that it doesn't work anywhere except as the final song.  When I placed it in the middle of one of my custom CDs it just brought everything to a halt because you cannot listen to another song for awhile. 

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