Cash Unearthed – Johnny Cash
For anyone who discovered the depth of Johnny Cash's artistry through the
four releases that comprise the American Recordings series, then the
five CD box set Cash Unearthed is required listening. Consisting of
three hours of unreleased treasures featuring Cash solo and with a who's who
guests, it provides the exclamation point to his final decade of creativity.
For those who haven't experienced Cash's work with producer/American
Records owner Rick Rubin, this deluxe package makes for a hefty introduction
collaboration that resuscitated a legend.
Cash met producer Rubin at the time of a career downslide. His long
association with Columbia Records had ended and his reputation was just
enough to keep
his new record company faintly interested. He still attracted the faithful
concerts, but the venues were small. The idea of a young, long-haired
man who worked with rock and hip-hop acts (i.e. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom
Petty) signing Cash and then producing the one-time country star seemed like
odd and desperate choice. Instead, it proved to be one of the greatest
moves Cash made since approaching Sam Phillips at Sun Records as a young
I'll admit that my experience with Cash's music remained limited to his
major hits. With the release of American Recordings in 1994 I became
transfixed as his deep voice led me through a series of uncompromising and
dark-humored tales. The intimate production – just Cash's vocals and
acoustic guitar –
made for a chilling and hypnotic effect. Who’s Gonna Cry, disc one of
Unearthed, focuses on other solo performances.
The box set's opening number, "Long Black Veil," drags you into a world
that's filled with death, deceit, confession and punishment. Much of
"Unearthed" retains its fascination with such subject matter. Throughout its
69 numbers, Cash maintains an awareness of right and
wrong, hope and forgiveness, unending love and oncoming mortality. It's why
his manner so often seems matter-of-fact. That knowledge allows him to have
giddy fun with such subject matter. What seems like a shockingly sad and
prescient refrain in "The Caretaker" ("Who's gonna cry when ol' John dies?")
receives a jolt when Cash's giggle pops up at its conclusion, giving the
impression that he's well aware of the End and he's going to have a good
time 'til that final day arrives. A different side emerges during the
solemnity of "You'll Never Walk Alone."
While his songs pay strict attention to the idea that actions beget
reactions, Cash's dedication as a student of the Bible appears when a
character finds redemption after all his sinning ways. He even finds a
reprieve from lyrical burdens with the occasional love song. "Flesh and
Blood" describes his enduring need for the companionship of his wife, June
Carter Cash who died a few months before Cash himself passed away last
September. The duet, "As Long As the Grass Shall Grow," transfers their
feelings into beautiful sounds.
On other American Recordings releases, backing musicians, mainly Tom
Petty and the Heartbreakers, supported Cash. Much of Trouble in Mind,
two, revives Cash's days at Sun with numbers finding their graceful
swingin' rhythm. One particular highlight finds another Sun alum, Carl
Perkins, joining Cash for "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." Later, a rendition of
Steve Earle's "Devil's Right Hand" returns to the theme of actions and
With Redemption Songs, disc three, Cash connects with acoustic-based
band arrangements. It's dramatic without ever breaking a sweat to elicit
emotion. He moves through the material like someone who is reminiscing as
making peace in anticipation of his upcoming walk towards heaven.
The spirit of those songs nicely segues to My Mother’s Hymn Book,
four. It finds Cash fulfilling his final musical wish — to record the
selections of songs that he heard his mother sing when he was a child. The
intimacy and sparseness of Cash's solo performances here brings about an
understanding of why these selections meant so much to him.
A fifth disc, Best of Cash on American, compiles tracks from the four
American Recordings releases. It's a nice sampler for anyone who
experienced the previous work. But, for others it's unnecessary. With a
of nearly $80, Cash Unearthed should attract the completists. More
than likely they already own the other albums.
What everyone should enjoy is the deluxe packaging. The illuminating
liner notes discuss the whole experience. In addition, it offers
accounts by the principal creators involved. Through them we find out that
acted as Cash's enthusiastic guide, allowing the Man In Black to follow his
artistic instincts without submerging his ideas to the latest country trend.
Sure, Rubin made suggestions, which is how a number of unlikely covers by
Soundgarden, U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young,
and Tom Waits occurred.
The creative input stoked the desire to find material that suited Cash's
themes with arrangements molded towards his musical persona. A telling
comes about during the recording of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." It
out that Cash was a big reggae fan and after listening to a number of Marley
tracks in order to pick one, he chose this classic to use as a duet with Joe
Strummer. It's just one of many examples of the chances and experiments that
work on Cash Unearthed; rough diamonds rubbed until they sparkled and
anchoring a wealth of goods that bless us with each listen.