Johnny Cash: A Hard-Living Legend Finds Youthful Alternative
Throughout an illustrious, often turbulent 40-year career as a singer of American songs, Johnny Cash has been called many things. Fashionable isn't one of them.A naturally rebellious spirit, Cash's stubborn insistence on doing things his way -- in spite of the cost, potential for humiliation or threat of bodily harm -- has ensured his place among the most colorful and confounding personalities in all of popular music.Along the way, pills were popped, Cadillacs demolished, explosives detonated, hotel rooms remodeled and 500 acres of Los Padres National Forest burned to ash.Yet the death-cheating experiences only seemed to make Cash stronger and even more determined to prove wrong anyone who doubted his abilities as a creative artist and charismatic performer.Should country music radio choose to ignore Cash's forceful new Unchained (American) album, as was largely the case with his Grammy Award-winning American Recordings (American) comeback, it will only strengthen his resolve to work harder next time. You can never count Cash out.WRITTEN OFF"I think a lot of people in Nashville wanted me to go away and die back in the 60s," cackles Cash over the phone from his Hendersonville, Tennessee, homestead. "And by the 80s, I was pretty well written off by everyone else. When CBS dropped me in 1983, I had just about lost interest. My record company people were very apathetic toward me for years. They'd never ask me for a new album. But I'd just do one anyway and turn it in."Afterward, I went to Mercury/ PolyGram, but I got the feeling they were just going through the motions with me. I've always been very busy in the business and I've worked hard all the time. Eventually, singing the same songs over and over again began grinding me down."I thought maybe I'd have another chance someday. But until then, I'm not gonna sweat it. That's when American's Rick Rubin came along and things started happening again. When the heat's off me, I get steamed up."In a stunning turnabout, the still imposing 64-year-old Cash is now enjoying the unlikely attention of young alternative music fans for whom the Man In Black's aura of danger and bent sense of humor are admirable qualities. Including covers of tunes by alterna-faves like Beck and Soundgarden on Unchained certainly didn't hurt.But what might appear to be nothing but a calculated marketing ploy is actually proof of Cash's undiminished talent as an interpretive stylist. Somehow, when that commanding baritone bellow of Cash's is done wrestling with the lyrics of Beck's elliptical Rowboat and rambling through Chris Cornell's imagistically dense Rusty Cage, they become his songs.And thanks to the raw, combo-style accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as the deft touches of Marty Stuart and Mick Fleetwood, even the ballads rock."The first time Rick Rubin played me Soundgarden's version of Rusty Cage," says Cash, "I told him straight off, 'There's no way I can record that. It just ain't my kinda song. I can't do it.' But when I heard this new arrangement that the fellas had worked up, I really got to hear all the words for the first time and the tale they were telling was very fascinating. "The way every line in the song comes together is very intriguing and open enough to be interpreted in different ways. When I sang the song, I felt those words. I began to get very deep visions in my head. I was drawn into where the lyrics were going -- it's not something I can put into words by naming a specific time, place or person.... It's just a feeling. The way those lyrics just rolled out of me, I knew I had to do it."As for Beck's Rowboat, when I came to the line 'There's dog food on the floor and I've been like this before,' well... heh, heh, let's just say I could relate to that from my wilder days."Whether it's due to a heightened degree of self-awareness or some mysterious sixth sense, there's no question that Cash has a knack for selecting precisely the right songs to interpret.Countless times, Cash has eschewed the obvious to dig up and polish an overlooked gem like Mississippi field holler Delia's Gone or bring a new perspective to a familiar piece such as the Rolling Stones' No Expectations.Cash is such a convincing story-teller that, to this day, there are still some people who wrongly believe that the famous line he sings in Folsom Prison Blues, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," is autobiographical. In fact, although Cash is credited as the sole composer of Folsom Prison Blues, his song was based on a Gordon Jenkins composition, Crescent City Blues, released in 1954 as part of the Seven Dreams album.Folsom Prison Blues was first recorded by Cash for Sam Phillips' Sun label and released in 55 on the flipside of his So Doggone Lonesome single. Yet Jenkins' involvement was virtually unknown until a live version of the song appeared on the Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison album in 68.GREAT INSPIRATION"I was in the U.S. air force stationed in Germany in 53," Cash remembers. "And it was then that I saw a film called Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison. While I was there I also had that album by Gordon Jenkins with the song Crescent City Blues, which was a great inspiration for Folsom Prison Blues as well."At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn't trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that. Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins and we talked about what had happened, and everything was all right."Little did Cash know just how much the time he spent in Landsberg, Germany, as an air force radio operator would affect his future career in music. Along with learning to play the guitar in his barracks, joining his first performing band, the Landsberg Barbarians, and having his first song, Hey! Porter, published in Stars And Stripes magazine, he also had a fateful encounter with an African-American staff sergeant from Virginia named C.V. White that would dramatically change the course of music history."He was the inspiration for the song Blue Suede Shoes," says Cash. "As I recall, we were all dressed up to go out on a three-day pass, and C.V. came into my room looking really spiffy. I mean, he had his brass buttons shined and his blue uniform on and he said, 'Fellas, don't step on my blue suede shoes.' I looked down and I said, 'Those look like regular air force-issue shoes to me.' And he replied, 'Tonight, they're blue suede!'"I never forgot that. Then one night we were backstage at a show somewhere in Mississippi and I told Carl Perkins about what my buddy C.V. had said about his blue suede shoes. Before I knew it, Carl had the song written."Carl and I have worked together a lot over the years. We've been very close. I just did a duet with him (on Perkins' Two Old Army Pals) for his new Go Cat Go! (Dinosaur Entertainment) album. It's a very good record. Getting back together with him in the studio just felt like going home."Similar memories of good times past informed many of Cash's song selections for Unchained. Specifically, the crucial influences of the Louvin Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow are each remembered with song tributes, alongside a couple of personal favorites including the Dean Martin hit Memories Are Made Of This. which Cash has been singing since it was on the charts in 55.However, none is more deeply moving than Cash's own delicately wist-ful Meet Me In Heaven, which he dedicates to his life partner, June Carter."I always wanted to write a song with that title," confides Cash. "Meet Me In Heaven is actually the inscription on my brother Jack's tombstone. Somehow, I'd imagined that it would be a gospel song. But as it turned out, it became a love song to June."You know, I'm still very close to Jack's spirit. Quite often when I'm alone at night, I wonder, 'What would Jack think about this?' Or 'What would Jack have done in that situation?' And every so often, when I'm on stage and something that I do draws a big response, I'll say to myself, 'I made it, Jack.'"