Everyone loves a comeback story, and the music industry is full of memorable ones. I recently examined one of the most compelling comebacks in music, Elvis Presley’s return to greatness in 1969. Today, let’s take a closer look at the king of comebacks, Johnny Cash, who had more than one throughout his storied life.
Johnny Cash and Elvis have a lot in common. Like Elvis, Johnny Cash changed popular music — in Cash’s case, country, folk, and pop — by recording with Sam Phillips in Sun Studios. Cash served in the Army before Elvis did. Like Elvis, he suffered from a drug dependency. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis also restored flagging careers by collaborating with the right creative partners. Elvis revived a moribund career through his work with producer Chips Moman, which resulted in some of the best music of his career. In 1994, Cash returned to artistic greatness when he and producer Rick Rubin released American Recordings at a time when Cash thought his recording career was over.
And Johnny Cash working with Rick Rubin was a collaboration that no one saw coming.
The Meeting of a Lifetime
In February 1993, Johnny Cash had a meeting that changed his life. He was performing in a rinky-dink club in southern California for an audience that numbered, at best, a few hundred — a far cry from the days when he could pack a large arena. He’d been told that a record producer named Rick Rubin wanted to meet him. Cash had no idea who Rick Rubin was, but he agreed to a meet.
The backstage encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes. At first, they seemed to have little in common. Rubin was a 30-year-old music impresario who had produced Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Slayer. Cash was a 63-year-old country star on the downside of his career. Cash wore black. Rubin walked around barefoot.
As Cash would remember in an interview included in the liner notes for the anthology album Unearthed, Rubin came across as “the ultimate hippie, bald on top, but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed, and clothes that would have done a wino proud.”
But they had everything in common. And Rubin knew it.
Rubin was interested in producing Cash, because he wanted to record with someone who was “great and important, but who wasn’t doing their best work.” And Cash fit the bill. Rubin was fascinated with Cash’s dark side. He thought the man who once wrote, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was as much an outlaw as the most hard-core rapper from Compton.
At the same time, he saw in Cash’s work the voice of a vulnerable outlaw who wrestled with remorse and pain. Over the years, Cash’s music had lost that dark edge, which made him less interesting.
Rubin wondered if he could capture that voice again on the American Recordings label that Rubin owned and operated from his home studio near the Sunset Strip.
Cash remembered Rubin telling Cash he’d like to record him.
“What for?” Cash responded. Indeed, what for? Cash had a recording contract with Mercury Records, but no one had demonstrated an interest in producing him for years.
“I think if you let me record you singing the songs that you love, that you want to sing, that we’re going to find some that the people are going to like and are going to buy,” Rubin replied.
Rubin went on to pitch the idea of recording Cash alone and unplugged.
“You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone and sing me the songs you love,” Rubin said. “Just sing me everything you want to record.”
Cash was intrigued. It turns out he’d once thought of doing an album like that. And he saw a conviction in Rubin’s eyes — a man of music who believed in what he was doing with probably more passion that Cash himself possessed at the time.
“Why don’t you give it a try?” Rubin asked.
“All right,” Cash replied.
How far had Johnny Cash fallen when he met Rick Rubin that day?
Very, very far.
He had not released a Top 10 country album since 1976. He was no longer a concert draw. His long-time record label, Columbia, had dropped him in 1986, and his current label, Mercury, treated him with indifference. He was writing lackluster songs that relied on tired formulas. He sometimes made embarrassingly bad music, including the notorious “The Chicken in Black” song in 1984, which was about a three-way brain transplant. Its video featured Johnny running around in a weird costume.
“The Chicken in Black” was a far cry from songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire” — music that had challenged popular music tastes by fusing Americana, folk, and country. At the height of his fame, he was a singular talent akin to Jimi Hendrix — someone whose style was so distinctive that no one could really play and sing like him. He stood apart from the rest.
His 1968 album At Folsom Prison had made him a hero to the burgeoning rock culture. He cemented that role with a popular and progressive TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, which featured both country and rock acts alike. On his show, he introduced younger generations to a body of work that included the great hits that had defined his career: brutal, honest, but hopeful songs about outlaws and searchers. He also invited rock greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young to perform, which made The Johnny Cash Show culturally relevant.
At the same time, his close relationship with televangelist Billy Graham made him beloved by the Christian Right. As a result, in the early 1970s, he found himself in the improbable role of being loved by two opposing ends of a vast spectrum, which maximized his commercial appeal by broadening his audience. He toured heavily and pulled down large paychecks each time he performed. His record albums sold well. He was a TV star.
But, unfortunately, he overextended himself.
Everyone wanted a piece of him, and he said yes to everyone. Unfortunately, recording episodes for The Johnny Cash Show sapped his creative energy. And when he wasn’t taping TV shows, he was touring. When he wasn’t touring, he was appearing at Billy Graham religious crusades. When he wasn’t crusading for Jesus, he was crusading for various social causes, such as prison reform. He also made artistic choices that distracted him and spread him thin — like his costly and ill-advised trip to Israel in 1971 to produce a movie about Jesus Christ. The Gospel Roadturned out about as well as you might expect from someone with zero film-making experience.
Truth be told, the business of being Johnny Cash was costly and time-consuming. Not only did he have a family to support, but he had a lot of people on the payroll, especially when he toured with a large retinue of supporting musicians. He also liked expanding his horizons, but projects such as The Gospel Road were a drain on his finances. In addition, his involvement in the Billy Graham Crusades and his social causes came from a desire to do good.
Not surprisingly, he had little time to write songs. So he began phoning them in. And they were not very good. For instance, one of his songs, “Strawberry Cake,” was a trite tale about a bum who spots a strawberry cake in a fancy hotel, grabs a slice, and runs away. The song was an embarrassing attempt to connect with a blue-collar audience the way Merle Haggard was successfully doing with his own albums and songs. But Cash wasn’t putting in one-tenth the song-craft that Haggard invested into his gritty songs about working-class people struggling to get by. No one could relate to a strange tale about an everyman stealing a piece of strawberry cake.
Living in a Comfort Zone
But deeper problems were eating away at Cash’s creativity beyond lacking time to write. He was also easing into a comfort zone. And comfort zones can be deadly for artists.
Cash’s comfort zone consisted of his role as a good-time gospel singer and noble Christian, which he embraced fully after he became a father to his son with June Carter Cash, John Carter, in 1970, and got more involved in Billy Graham crusades.
The man who once wrote songs about murderers had become a warm, cuddly teddy bear who sang at Billy Graham conventions and waxed poetically about his faith in public. There’s nothing wrong with a secular artist performing inspirational gospel songs, as Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley can attest. But what made Johnny Cash great was how he drew from a well of inner conflict and wrote about both his demons and his angels.
Inner conflict had driven him to artistic heights. He had written “I Walk the Line” to express his commitment to being a faithful husband (even though in real life he was unfaithful). But he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” too. He sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And he also sang, gleefully, about killing his woman in “Cocaine Blues.”
That was Johnny Cash at his artistic peak: a searcher and a scoundrel. But when he got too comfortable being a moralist, he lost his edge. As Robert Hilburn wrote in his excellent biography, Johnny Cash: The Life:
When it was time to go into the studio, Cash would just bring in the last batch of songs that had caught his ear. He didn’t sit down and plan them. There wasn’t a feeling of life and death about them anymore. He had other priorities.
Years later Cash told me he was lulled by his success in the 1960s and early 1970s into taking his music for granted. He felt he could devote most of his attention to his family and spreading God’s Word and still have plenty of time left over to make records. But suddenly, it seemed like everything dried up. By the time he realized what was happening, he didn’t know what to do about it. Besides, he enjoyed those new priorities.
An even more insidious problem ate away at him: drugs. He’d battled an addiction to pills off and on throughout this life. In the 1960s, he suffered the public humiliation of multiple busts for possession of pills, and it’s widely believed that he was under the influence of drugs when he started a forest fire that destroyed 508 acres in the Los Padres National Forest. Although he kept churning out albums during the 1960s, he became an unreliable performer and entertainment outcast.
But with the help of June Carter, he’d gotten sober in 1970. He stayed that way until 1977, when he began abusing amphetamines again. And the drugs killed whatever creative spark he might have possessed at this point. This description of a disastrous recording session, courtesy of Johnny Cash: The Life, speaks volumes:
He showed up wearing brown knee-high boots, only to look down and declare there was no way that he — the Man in Black — should be recording in brown boots. While the musicians watched, he sat on the studio floor and carefully painted the boots black. Then he learned that Julie Andrews was recording in the studio down the hall, and they recorded a song. After all this delay, Cash started recording the gospel album. With just two songs done he announced he was going out to get some milk and cheese.
Hilburn noted that after going out to buy his milk and cheese, Cash never returned to the studio. Instead, his car got stranded in a ditch in a field, and then spun the wheels so hard that the grass caught fire and burned up his car.
Cash was no John Lennon and Paul McCartney making Revolver with a nudge of LSD, or Keith Richards on heroin creating great guitar licks for Exile on Main St. Johnny Cash had run out of great songs. And the drugs kept it that way. He eventually entered the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and would return for treatment at various hospitals in 1989 and 1992.
After he emerged from his 1992 rehab, something happened that offered a glimpse of Cash’s artistic turnaround. In February 1993, Bono invited Cash to do a guest vocal on a song he’d penned with Cash in mind: “The Wanderer,” for U2’s largely techno-fused album Zooropa. At first, Cash wondered what on earth he could contribute to what seemed like an experimental electronic album. But when he read Bono’s lyrics, he felt encouraged. He went into the studio and laid down his track. Afterward, he was sure that Bono would wise up and re-record the vocals in his own voice. But Bono called Cash to say that U2 loved his performance and that “The Wanderer” was going to be on the album the way Cash sang it.
This was a huge moment. Cash felt a spiritual connection with U2 that transcended their musical differences. He was also flattered to be part of an album that would reach millions of people, something that Cash could no longer do on his own.
Later that month, Cash met Rick Rubin.
At Rick Rubin’s House
Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash began recording on May 17, 1993. Rubin had paved the way for Cash to record with him by striking a deal with Mercury that allowed Cash to record under Rubin’s label. He made Cash feel right at home — Rick Rubin’s home, to be exact. Rubin had set up simple recording equipment in his house near Los Angeles, where Rick sat barefoot with his dogs and listened to Cash play. (Rick Rubin would later recall for the Unearthed liner notes that the sound of his dogs barking would sometimes ruin one of Cash’s takes — the occasional price of his laid-back approach.) True to his word, Rick Rubin encouraged Cash to play the songs that Cash felt like playing, just Cash and his guitar. He said to Cash, as they got to know each other better, “I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs.”
In his interview for the Unearthed liner notes, Cash explained,
I went to Rick’s home in California. He had the recording equipment in a big room, fully equipped with everything — but actually all he needed was a couple of microphones. One for me, one for my guitar. And I started singing. And this went on for days it seemed. Day after day I would go in with the guitar, sit down, and start singing. One song after another . . . and it gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of a microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said, “Let’s hear what you got. Sing your heart out,” and I’d sing one or two and he’d say, “Sing another one, let’s hear more,” and on and on and on I would sing for Sam Phillips until I had something he wanted to record — which was “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” He kept saying, “Let’s hear what you got, let’s hear what you got,” and I kept on singing. It was the same thing with Rick, the same kind of freedom, but with a more laid-back attitude.
Having Johnny Cash strum his guitar and sing whatever he wanted sounded like a simple approach — but it was also a challenging one. Cash had never recorded all by himself. Even when he recorded with Sam Phillips, he’d brought musicians with him. With Rick Rubin, Cash’s sound was stripped to its bare essence.
Rubin had a reason for recording Cash this way. As recounted in Johnny Cash: The Life, when Rubin recorded with musicians, he usually talked with them first in order to understand the people behind the music. But Cash was a man of few words. Rubin encouraged Cash to speak through his music. He also wanted to rebuild Cash’s confidence.
At first, Rubin did not turn on the recording equipment — he just asked Cash to start playing. Cash dipped into his songbook to play a range of music, from gospel to train songs. On their second night playing together, Rubin became intrigued by a song, “Oh, Bury Me Not,” an old folk song that Cash had learned to play as a boy. Cash opened the tune with a two-minute spoken poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer.”
As he told Robert Hilburn, “It got back to the sort of mystical root of who Johnny Cash is. It was something that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him. It was epic, and that’s what Johnny Cash was to me — epic.”
Rubin turned on the recording equipment and asked Cash to do the song again. It was time to start finding songs for an album.
Cash unleashed more songs. Murder ballads such as “Delia’s Gone,” which Cash had written in the 1960s. A Kris Kristofferson song, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere.” And one he’d written four years earlier, “Drive On,” a powerful song about a Vietnam veteran. The evocative “Drive On” was significant, because it proved Cash could still write great songs. And Cash knew, deep down, what a great song sounded like: he’d refused to record “Drive On” for Mercury, because he thought the effort would have been wasted. He was saving the song for someone who might come along some day and do it justice.
That day had arrived.
As important as “Drive On,” was, “Delia’s Gone” was an even bigger breakthrough. The song is a brutal recounting of a man who kills his beloved and then suffers the anguish of a lifetime of remorse. Here are some of the lyrics:
First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone
But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer
I can’t sleep ’cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone
Even though Cash had written the song decades ago, Rubin had never heard it. He was ecstatic. This was the kind of song that connected Johnny Cash with contemporary hip-hop and rock at their grittiest and darkest — the emotionally bruising side of Cash that had been missing for years, but which could make him relevant again to contemporary culture. As he told Robert Hilburn,
I’m talking about the original Johnny Cash who loomed large and was surrounded by all this darkness, yet who still had vulnerability. I wanted, if you will, to take him back to the “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” Man in Black, and “Delia’s Gone” did it perfectly. He kills the girl, and then is remorseful. I loved how the brutal act was followed by this haunted life. I was trying to get him to go from all these years of thinking his best stuff was behind him and just phoning in records to thinking we could make his best albums ever. I don’t know if he really believed that, but he was willing to give it a try.
“Delia’s Gone” was a turning point. Cash was encouraged by Rubin’s enthusiastic reaction to the song. His confidence was building. After “Delia’s Gone,” Cash and Rubin roamed through more songs. Cash unleashed another compelling song he’d written, but was hiding, “Like a Soldier.” Rubin, emboldened, began to suggest songs for Cash to try, such as “Thirteen,” written by goth metal rocker Glenn Danzig, one of the musicians Rubin had worked with over the years.
As Danzig remembered when talking with Rolling Stone magazine,
I think somebody from Rick Rubin’s office or Rick called me and asked me if I knew who Johnny Cash was, and I said, “F — k yeah, I know who Johnny Cash is,” and they said, “Would you write a song for him?” . . . “ wrote [“Thirteen”] in, like, a half-hour, as soon as I got off the phone. It was that quick. The song was just my impression of who Johnny Cash was and what he meant.
Rubin saw a connection between Danzig and Cash — the dark, tormented songwriter. As he said to Robert Hilburn,
I wasn’t trying to look for songs that would “connect” Johnny to a younger audience . . . I was just trying to find songs that really made sense for his voice. By that I don’t mean baritone. I mean resonate with his character so he could sing the words and have them feel like he wrote them.
But even so, Rubin had to tread carefully and bring up “Thirteen” at the right moment. This was the kind of song that might have turned off Cash had Rubin brought it up earlier in the recording process. It might have come across like Rick Rubin was trying to force a marriage between Cash and goth metal. But in context of “Delia’s Gone,” “Thirteen” seemed like a natural fit:
Found me with a preacher man confessin’ all I done
Catch me with the devil playing 21
And a bad luck wind been blowin’ on my back
I was born to bring trouble wherever I’m at
Their adventurous exploration also resulted in one of the most stunning moments of Cash’s career: his cover of “The Beast in Me.” The song had been written by Cash’s former stepson-in-law, British rocker Nick Lowe, who had been married to Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter from 1979 to 1990. Despite the dissolution of the marriage, Lowe and Cash remained on good terms. Lowe even wrote “The Beast in Me” with Johnny Cash in mind. Cash had heard Lowe play an unfinished version of “The Beast in Me” at one point, and was impressed by the work-in-progress. Here was a song that Cash himself could have written:
The beast in me
Has had to learn to live with pain
And how to shelter from the rain
And in the twinkling of an eye
Might have to be restrained
God help the beast in me
As Cash and Nick Lowe would later recount, Cash never lost sight of that song. Over a period of 12 years, he would ask Lowe, “How’s that song coming along?” Finally, Lowe finished a demo.
Cash rewarded his effort with a rendition that seemed to capture the essence of all the inner conflict that had made Johnny Cash great. The song would become a centerpiece of Cash’s concerts when he began to tour again after American Recordings was finished. As important as “Delia’s Gone” was, “The Beast in Me” was more personal and relatable to a broader audience.
Cash and Rubin experimented musically, too. When Cash took a break from recording to go on tour, Rubin brought in musicians, such as Tom Petty and Flea to overdub the basic tracks and fatten the sound, as producer Chips Moman had done with Elvis Presley famously in 1969. Rubin listened to the fuller, richer renditions and decided he preferred the stripped-down version. In later albums after American Recordings, Rubin would complement Cash with musicians to satisfying effect. But now was not the time to do that.
The sessions did not go perfectly. When it became clear that the song demos were actually materializing into a real album, Cash became self-conscious. He started to “perform” the songs instead of singing them with the natural ease of those first few days of recording. His delivery lost its organic appeal.
Rubin decided to do something about that: he booked Cash for a single-night performance in the Viper Room, a hip club on the Sunset Strip owned by Johnny Depp. (This was the same Viper Room where River Phoenix had died tragically on Halloween only weeks before Cash’s appearance.) Cash had never performed alone in concert, and he was terrified, which was just what Rubin expected to happen. Rubin hoped that singing in the Viper Room for a real audience — doing a real performance on a stage — would make it easier for Cash to get back into the vibe of singing alone in Rubin’s living room in a more informal way.
Rick Rubin knew what he was doing. The Viper Room had just the right kind of hip rock-and-roll vibe that Cash needed to see how relevant he could be to a contemporary audience. Rubin made sure that some of the stars he worked with, such as Tom Petty and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would be in the room. So was Sean Penn, at the time in the full bloom of his career. They were the right kind of tastemakers, and they welcomed the Man in Black with gusto. Cash debuted songs such as “Delia’s Gone,” and the audience cheered him on. Fortunately, Rubin recorded the performance, and two of the songs made the cut for the album in progress.
The triumphant Viper Club performance was also a turning point for Johnny Cash. Up until then, he was accustomed to playing for tourists and retirees in decidedly unhip venues like Branson, Missouri. He hated the experience. Once again, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life sums it up:
The atmosphere was touristy, leading him to wonder if the audience even cared about the music. Most of the crowd were bus tour groups who were simply attending shows that the tour organizers had lined up for them.
Playing for tourists and retirees made him feel old and irrelevant. He regretted ever signing up to perform in Branson. But the Viper Room reminded him that a more vibrant, music-loving audience could respond to his work. As Tom Petty recounted in Cash: A Life, “Johnny was so happy. He felt like he was starting to matter again.”
The performance also got Cash to loosen up when he returned to recording songs with Rick Rubin. They continued recording until they’d amassed enough songs to choose for an album. They picked 13 songs and listened to them from beginning to end in Rick’s house. No one said a word. Then Rick commented, “Wow, this is great. And since it’s not supposed to be anything other than great, that’s when you say, ‘It’s done.’” Rubin chose the title, American Recordings.
One thing about Rick Rubin: he knew how to promote music, as well as produce it. He pulled all the right levers with American Recordings, starting with an album cover design that made Cash look like some kind of wind-swept Gothic figure.
This was a different image of Cash than the smiling man depicted on his most recent album, Country Christmas. Rubin made sure that the most influential music critics received advance copies of the album. He signed up Cash to appear at important events, such as Glastonbury in England and the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
The real masterstroke was the release of a brutal video for “Delia’s Gone,” which was so striking in its violence that MTV banned it. Getting banned by MTV was perfect PR for Cash. If there were any lingering perceptions that he was a cuddly, lovable man of God, the ban crushed them.
The album sold 236,000 copies, a modest figure by 1994 standards and a far cry from the top-selling album of 1994, Ace of Base’s The Sign, which sold 3.8 million copies. But it was Johnny Cash’s best-selling album since 1971’s Man in Black, and the album rose as high as 23 on the country charts. And American Recordings resonated with the right people, including Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis, who gave the album five stars (the highest rating possible) and wrote, “American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary.”
DeCurtis’s reaction was typical of the critical acclaim. The album garnered rave reviews across the board. It also made Cash a culturally relevant hero to a younger generation. He became a hot concert draw, although health problems would eventually curtail Cash’s touring activity.
Rubin and Cash went back into the studio to make several more albums of covers and Johnny Cash originals, including “The Man Comes Around,” one of Cash’s last great epics, and “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that drew attention with its devastating video.
They developed a close relationship that transcended music. They reportedly took Holy Communion together every day, even though Rubin was not particularly religious.
Commercially, their most successful effort would turn out to be 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which sold 1.6 million copies, largely because of the power of the “Hurt” video. But critically and culturally, American Recordings had the biggest impact. Rolling Stone would rank the album 384 among the Top 500 albums of all time.
Johnny Cash was back.