Johnny Cash: Rick Rubin

Johnny CashProducer Rick Rubin and I spoke on the phone in early 2010 in connection with the Feb. 26 release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the final album in the Rubin-helmed series that resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. It would have been Cash’s 78th birthday. The tracks come from the same sessions as those on Cash’s first posthumous release, 2006’s chart-topping American V: A Hundred Highways.


I had to break the news to Rubin that Bob Dylan considers the American Recordings albums to be “notorious low-grade stuff.” Coincidentally, Rubin is Dylan’s boss in his capacity as co-head of Columbia Records.

WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES INHERENT IN DOING AMERICAN VI, AS OPPOSED TO V, IV, III, II, I? 

cashIt was the same as V, because both V and VI were worked on at the same time. From the recording perspective it was different because John was in ill health, so it was an ongoing process where we set it up where every day he could record if he was able to. He wanted to work every day, and some days he was able to and some days he wasn’t. I would say that was different. Up to IV, he was much more mobile. He was still touring, I think, even through III. That was probably the main difference, was his physical health.

HOW ABOUT PSYCHOLOGICALLY? 

Psychologically, it’s interesting because he always likes recording but he seemed particularly inspired to record. I think when touring was taken away from him, that was a real blow because probably for 40 years he spent his life — 300 or more dates — on the road. So I think he had little bit of loss of understanding of who he was when he wasn’t able to tour anymore. So he got very passionate about recording because it was his way to still be an artist. I think he felt like a big portion of being an artist was going out and singing for people and he couldn’t do that anymore.

I IMAGINE THAT MUST HAVE BEEN PRETTY DEPRESSING 

It was very difficult. But then he re-fell in love with the idea of recording and deciding to do it more and more, I think it filled that void that was left in his life from touring,

I KNOW V AND VI WERE RECORDED AT THE SAME TIME BUT CAN WE DIFFERENTIATE THEM IN ANY WAY? 

American Recordings, Vol. V - A Hundred HighwaysI would say the mood of the two are different, but that mainly has to do more with song selection than anything else. I feel like V (pictured) is a little more depressing or a little more about death, and VI seems to be more of a phoenix rising from the ashes. For me, that’s how I hear it. After having not listened to this material for a long time, and hearing it fresh and hearing his voice and his commanding presence and knowing that people haven’t heard this material before, it does seem like a voice coming from another place. I don’t know if I’m explaining it well! It feels otherworldly.

EVERY SONG DOES HAVE AN EERIE RESONANCE TO IT EVEN IF THE SONG ISN’T ABOUT DEATH: YOU CAN READ THAT INTO THE TITLE OF I DON’T HURT ANYMORE. OR LOOK AT FOR THE GOOD TIMES — “LIFE GOES ON AND THIS WHOLE WORLD WILL KEEP TURNING.” I’M SURE IT WASN’T KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’S INTENTION TO WRITE A DEATH SONG 

It’s true, and both of those are songs that Johnny picked and said he wanted to sing. It may have been his subconscious state of mind, where he was that.

AIN’T NO GRAVE, WHOSE CHOICE WAS THAT? 

That was one that I suggested. We were thinking about looking at old gospel songs and old field songs and that line between the sort of black gospel field holler songs. We looked at a lot of them and that was the one that I think he liked the best. We listened to loads of them, and that was the one he zeroed in on.

WHOSE VERSION OF THE SONG WERE YOU LISTENING TO? 

I don’t know. It was probably either a Smithsonian recording. I don’t even know that it had an artist’s name on it. I think it’s just considered a traditional field holler piece.

BUT A LOT OF THESE SONGS HAVE BEEN COVERED QUITE WIDELY, INCLUDING A SATISFIED MIND. WAS IT IMPORTANT FOR JOHNNY TO BE FAMILIAR WITH THEM BECAUSE IT MADE THEM EASIER TO SING? 

It wasn’t so much a premeditated thing. He might just say, Did you ever hear this one? And sing me that song. And when we listened back to everything it was like, That’s a good take, maybe it should be on an album. Sometimes we would come up with ideas specifically to record and sometimes just the nature of the recording environment was he’d start singing a song and it would end up being a record.

KillBill2“A SATISFIED MIND” APPEARS ON THE KILL BILL 2 SOUNDTRACK. ARE THEY EXACTLY THE SAME? 

It’s exactly the same.

WHY WAS THAT USED AGAIN THIS TIME? 

It was always meant to be on this album and when Quentin (Tarantino) was looking for something he asked what we had and that was the best thing that seemed to fit what he was looking for.

WHAT’S LEFT OVER THAT WE HAVEN’T HEARD YET? 

CashUnearthedNothing really that would be a studio album. Remember we did that Unearthed boxed set (in 2003)? Those were all outtakes of stuff that we wouldn’t have put on an album. So there’s some things that we wouldn’t put on album but might be part of a retrospective. But this is the last true studio album.

OF THE SONGS ON THIS RECORD, IS IT VARIOUS TAKES SPLICED TOGETHER? 

I believe most of them are the same takes. He may have sang them several times. For example “First Corinthians,” he sung that once and then when we had a feel for it then he probably sang it several times over the same take, and then we probably comped those vocals to get the best of that performance.
 
HIS VOICE DOES SOUND CONSISTENTLY MUCH STRONGER THAN IT DOES ON AMERICAN V. SOME OF THAT RECORD WAS PRETTY HARD TO LISTEN TO. DID YOU USE ANY PRODUCTION TECHNIQUES TO FIX HIS VOICE?

No. As I say, they were both done at exactly the same time. It just really has to do with song selection.

WHO HAD THE FINAL SAY IN THE TRACK LISTING? 

Basically me, and John Carter Cash (pictured, receiving some posthumous Grammys for his mother) was in the loop. We listened together early on and decided everything that would be on the two albums, and then I think I split ’em up into which would be on which. John Carter was involved in recording all of them as well. He was there for the whole thing as well.

I KNOW ALL THESE RECORDS ARE YOUR LIKE YOUR CHILDREN. BUT IS THERE ONE IN THE SET THAT YOU LISTEN TO MORE FREQUENTLY THAN THE OTHERS? 

Not really, I actually tend not to listen to things that I worked on. I’ll hear them if something comes on the radio or I’m at someone’s house and the song comes on. We spend so much time working on them usually that by the time that it finally gets signed off on, I’ve heard it enough.

BUT EMOTIONALLY DO YOU FEEL CLOSER TO ONE ALBUM IN PARTICULAR? 

CashII have sweet memories of all of them for different reasons. I really like the first album (1994’s American Recordings, pictured at left) just because we had just met. And I remember what that was like. I really like the album we did with Tom Petty’s band (1996’s II, Unchained, pictured below) just because it was such a different experience and it was really a fun one to do, with the band all playing at once.CashII I can remember the later ones being with Johnny in his cabin in Nashville and it being difficult but really seeing therapeutically how good it made him feel to do this work every day, how important it was that I just felt privileged to be in the room. I have very different and strong feelings about the whole process. But really less about the music and more just him, just getting to spend time with him was the best part. He was the coolest guy.

HOW HAS YOUR CONCEPT OF SPIRITUALITY CHANGED? 

I would say just deepened. We talked about it a lot. We’d pray together and do communion together. I just really appreciated the power of his faith and it was beautiful even when really difficult things were going on in his life. I got to see his strength. It was beautiful.

DO YOU HAVE VISIONS OF HIM, OR DREAMS? 

I did, I did, probably for the first six to nine months, I felt his presence around. It didn’t really feel like anything had changed for the first six or nine months, and then after that he started feeling further away.

WHAT DID YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS THINK ABOUT YOU TAKING COMMUNION? OR WERE YOU RAISED IN A PRETTY SECULAR FASHION? 
    
No one’s really discussed it much.
 
I’M SURE A FEW EYEBROWS WERE RAISED

They raise their eyebrows at me a lot anyway!

DID YOU READ BOB DYLAN’S COMMENT IN ROLLING STONE LAST YEAR WHEN THAT THE AMERICAN RECORDINGS MATERIAL WAS “NOTORIOUS LOW-GRADE STUFF,” AND THE ONLY WAY TO APPRECIATE JOHNNY CASH WAS TO LISTEN TO HIS SUN RECORDINGS 

Interesting. I had not seen that. Wow, interesting!

YOU’LL HAVE TO FIRE HIM FROM THE LABEL NOW! 

No, it’s all good. We love Bob. His manager said he wanted to get together because he liked the songs on American Recordings, and we should talk about ’em. Funny.

I ALSO HEARD SOME OTHER CONTRARIAN REVISIONISM THAT THESE ALBUMS DEPICTED HIM IN A GOTHIC, DARK FASHION WHICH WASN’T REPRESENTATIVE OF HIS FUN PERSONALITY? 

Yeah. I could see that, I would say he was more rounded than those records show. I would say that. A lot of it had to with songs that I would suggest. More than half the songs were picked by him and not me, and all the songs were chosen by him ultimately because I pitched loads of songs to him. But I tended to pick more serious songs just because I always thought of what suits the Man in Black, and I really thought of him more as a mythological figure than as the flesh-and-blood funny guy.

YOU WANTED TO PERPETUATE THE MYTHOLOGY? 

That’s what I wanted to hear. When I think of Johnny Cash that’s what I think of and I wanted to hear music that supported that. That was my taste.

YOU COULDN’T HAVE HIM DO A COMEDY ALBUM 

At one point he did do some songs like “The Chicken in Black” … I think we remember him more for “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” than for some of the more comedic songs.

THESE RECORDS GOT SO MUCH ATTENTION AND WERE A FITTING FINALE TO HIS CAREER. BUT DID THEY MAKE ANY MONEY FOR ALL THE TIME AND EFFORT YOU PUT INTO THEM? 

They do OK. They don’t do wildly great, but they do fine. They’re respectable. They’re forever. But I never signed him with the idea of that being an issue. It was always just, this is a good thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever signed anyone with that idea.

ARE THERE ANY SONGS ON THIS RECORD THAT STICK OUT FOR YOU? 

I guess “First Corinthians” (I Corinthians 15:55) is a good one to talk about because John had worked on writing those words over a long period of time and went through many different versions. In the liner notes are a lot of different (handwritten) lyrics crossed out trying different things for that song. We recorded a lot of different ways and finally found the one that you hear. That’s the magic way to do it. I think he wrote it more like a story than a song and didn’t really have a musical take on it when he first brought it in. So we had to try a lot of things to find where the song was.

THAT WAS THE LAST SONG HE WROTE? 

I think it was. There were two songs written at the end. One was on V (Like The 309) and one was on VI, and I can’t remember which was the last one of the two. That might have been the last one, but this one was a longer process. I think that one just happened, and he talked about writing it and rewriting it for three years, which was unusual for him. I think he wrote pretty quickly. I think he usually had an idea and then wrote the song. I think it was unusual to really labor over one.

HE HAD PREVIOUSLY RECORDED LAST NIGHT I HAD THE STRANGEST DREAM, HADN’T HE? 

He had, and I can tell you how that one came about. We were talking about the idea of doing an album, an anti-war album called We Choose Peace, a collection of different artists. And I asked John if he would sing a song and I suggested doing “Imagine,” and he said he didn’t want to sing “Imagine” but he would sing “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream.” And we recorded it with the guys of that album and then we never did that album, and he said, “Well I like this. If we get a chance to use this. Let’s use this for something.”
  
AND ALOHA OE SEEMS VERY SIMILAR IN THEME TO WE’LL MEET AGAIN FROM AMERICAN IV (THE MAN COMES AROUND)? (SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE)

CashIVIt is, and both of those were Johnny’s choices. In the case of IV (pictured at right, the album with the “Hurt” cover) he wanted that to be the last song, and he thought that was going to be the last of all the American Recordings. I don’t know if you know this but everyone involved in all the records and all of his family, all the engineers and all the musicians — he wanted everyone singing on the end of that song that’s at the end of American IV. And he thought “We’ll Meet Again” and hearing all those voices was important for him to happen. So we did that, and then it wasn’t until we had the discussion that OK American IV is finished and it’s coming out, where he shook my hand and said, “You know, we had a great run and that was great and thank you.” It was a final thing. And I said we should start on V tomorrow, and his eyes lit up and I think he thought we were done. And then we continued recording what were V and VI. “Aloha” was one that he just brought in, “I’ve always wanted to sing this, this will be a good last song. I’d like this to be last.”

I GUESS HE KNEW THAT THE SONGS FOR V AND VI WOULD BE POSTHUMOUS RELEASES? 
    
We knew that we had enough material for two albums but we didn’t know that this would be the final album because we didn’t know he was gonna die. Had he lived we would have continued recording and there’d be more.

Johnny, June 1999

HE WAS BASICALLY ILL FOR THE ENTIRE TIME THAT YOU KNEW HIM 

Pretty much, and if anything he was getting better. From the last six months of his life he went from being almost blind and in a wheelchair to being able to see better, being able to read again and he could walk again. When I got the call that he had passed away it was really shocking.

WHEN YOU HOLD THESE SIX CDS IN YOUR HAND, AND LOOK AT THIS BODY OF WORK THAT YOU INITIATED IT MUST BE A GOOD FEELING TO KNOW THAT YOU’VE ALMOST REWRITTEN THE HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND DEFINITELY REWRITTEN THE STORY OF JOHNNY CASH’S LIFE? 

Ummm. I’m proud to have been associated with him in any way and that I got to know him. The best part of anything is that his legacy feels like it’s where it belongs which, when I met him, didn’t feel like that. It feels like he’s where he belongs, and people really love and cherish him as he deserves. Beyond being a great artist he was a great man. I think it comes through, I think it comes through.

THIS ALBUM MUST REALLY FEEL LIKE IT’S THE END OF THE ROAD, FOR YOU 

I felt that way a while ago. The only reason this album’s coming out now instead of earlier is there were so many other Johnny Cash things coming out that I just wanted it to have its own space and not be lumped in with another reissue. Because it’s not, it really is his final statement. That’s the reason it took so long. But for my perspective it’s just been waiting for the right moment to put it out. I’ve already mourned the end of our working together … I really just hope people get to hear it. If they like Johnny Cash and wanna feel a connection to him that they haven’t felt before, that’s what’s exciting to me. Wow! A new Johnny Cash album. He’s been gone for a while. This exists, it’s really cool.

IT’S NICE THAT YOU’VE GONE INTO THE ARCHIVES AND PUT SOME EFFORT INTO THE ARTWORK (WITH A CHILDHOOD PHOTO ON THE COVER) 

Yeah, he’s probably made over a hundred albums and I feel like this album is a rebirth in some ways because I don’t think anyone’s expecting a great new Johnny Cash record at this point! because he’s been gone for a while. But to see that image, it just seems like a great bookend for his career. It’s like an end and a new beginning.

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NOTE: For more on Johnny Cash, read my gossipy rock anthology, Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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