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Credit: Johnny Cash

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How Rick Rubin resurrected the career of Johnny Cash

Alongside Quincy Jones, George Martin and the murderous Phil Spector, Rick Rubin is one of the most iconic record producers of all time. Famously sporting a plain white t-shirt and a massive beard, Rubin has helmed some of the best-loved albums ever put to wax.

Co-founder of the iconic Def Jam Recordings and former co-president of Columbia Records, he also established the cult label American Recordings in 1988. Rubin’s work with the three of these institutions has given him one of the most varied back catalogues of any producer, and he has shown over the years that there is nothing he can’t do.

Over his long, illustrious career, he has worked with various legends from all across the musical sphere. These include Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Weezer, Slayer and Slipknot, to name just a few. Whilst his life and career are well-worth recounting in a biopic, it is with his company, American Recordings, that we get our tale today.

Although it was formed at the tail end of the ’80s, American Recordings put out records by a range of artists such as Danzig, the Jesus and the Mary Chain and controversial stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay. However, it would secure its most iconic release in the early stages of the next decade.

The aforementioned body of work came in 1994, and it was none other than Johnny Cash‘s 81st studio album, the aptly named American Recordings. It would go on to be hailed as one of the most significant records in the whole of Cash’s long career as it marked a return to form for the ‘Man in Black’ who had suffered a decline many years prior. 

This surprising yet incredible partnership first sprouted in 1992. It came after Cash appeared as one of the performers at Bob Dylan’s glitzy 30th-anniversary at Madison Square Garden. Rubin was one of the audience members and felt that Cash was still a vital artist who the music industry and audiences had unfairly written off. He wanted to give him a chance to resurrect his once glorious career. 

Initially, Cash was sceptical. As American Recordings was mainly a rap and heavy metal label at that time, Cash didn’t see how he’d fit into the picture. Furthermore, he was suffering crippling health problems concerning his heart and bones and recovering from a recent drug addiction relapse. 

In addition to this, he was having a crisis of confidence. Now aged 60, Cash has been dropped by his label of nearly thirty years, CBS, in 1986 and was gearing up to retire from music altogether.

Quickly, the two men bonded, and Rubin promised Cash an almost independent level of creative control. He told the rebel country icon: “I would like you to do whatever feels right for you”, and for the first time in his career, Cash opted to record without any accompanying musicians. 

In 2009, Rubin explained how the friendship flourished: “Sitting and talking and playing music… that was when we got to build up a friendship”. He then recalled: “My fondest memories are just of hanging out and hearing his stories. He didn’t speak much but, if you drew him out, he seemed to know everything. He was shy and quiet but a wise, wise man.”

With the pair set on recording the album, Cash recorded most of it between his cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee and Rubin’s living room in Los Angeles, using only his guitar. It was a manifestation of Cash returning to his roots, as it was the earliest recording style he utilised in his career. Cash’s first producer, Sun Records’ resident producer, Sam Phillips, determined in the ’50s that his baritone was best suited to a stripped-back environment, backed by a three or four-piece band at most. 

However, the deviation from this style that many have argued is what culminated in his star declining. As the years wore on, and musical attitudes changed and technology developed, Cash’s subsequent producers increasingly moved away from this style, embellishing his songs more. 

Famously, Cash disagreed with ‘Ring of Fire‘ producer Jack Clement in the ’60s, who wanted to give his tracks the ubiquitous “twangy” feel and added more ornate backings such as string sections and barbershop quartet-esque backup singers. Then came the wearisome ’70s and ’80s, and in his 1997 autobiography, the country hero spoke at length about his frustration with CBS over that period over creative disagreements. 

Classically, two songs on the album ‘Tennessee Stud’ and ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ were recorded live at Johnny Depp’s notorious venue, the Viper Room, on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. In the 150 person crowd that night were the stars of the day that included A-listers Sean Penn, Juliette Lewis and assorted members of Red Hot Chili Peppers. By all accounts, the audience cheered none stop for 90 minutes, which was the first sign that Cash was on once more on the ascendance. 

Not all the songs on the album were written by Cash, which significantly added to its dense and varied feel. The third track, ‘The Beast in Me,’ was originally written and recorded by Cash’s formed stepson-in-law, British new-wave hero Nick Lowe.

In addition to this, Rubin also commissioned new tracks from a string of musicians. Nevertheless, only two of these made it onto the final cut. ‘Down There By The Train’ is a gospel styled song of redemption by Tom Waits, and most notably, ‘Thirteen’ is a gothic composition by Misfits founding member Glenn Danzig. 

In fact, the latter was written for Cash in less than twenty minutes. Additionally, two songs that made it onto the album were old staples of Cash’s. ‘Delia’s Gone’ appeared on 1962’s The Sound of Johnny Cash and ‘Oh, Bury Me Not’ on 1965’s Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West.

What resulted from Rubin’s direction was nothing short of a masterpiece. Gently guiding Cash throughout and giving him the support he needed by bringing in outside writers, Rubin’s decisions gave the album its inherently dramatic feel, which ballasts his mercurial subject. A mix of apocalyptic death and destruction, humour and sadness, American Recordings is without a doubt one of Cash’s finest outings. 

Not only did it mark the start of his resurgence, but it also expertly moved Cash into a modern setting whilst staying true to his roots. It is precisely this that endeared it to fans. Acknowledging his age, it is a reflective opus that not only discusses Cash’s complex ideation but American society’s as well. 

We, just like Johnny Cash, have Rick Rubin to thank for American Recordings‘ existence, and without his keen eye and will to approach the ‘Man in Black’, this project would never have come to fruition. A dizzying reality and a testament to the producer. 

Listen to American Recordings, below.

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