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On 7 December 1993, Johnny Cash took to the stage of The Viper Room in Los Angeles to perform a set of acoustic songs to a crowd of mostly twenty-somethings, many unaware of who the sixty-one-year-old in front of them really was. By this point in his life he had been written off as a has-been. His twenty-year contract with Columbia Records had come to end in the mid-1980s following a string disappointing albums, the once-iconic country star had lost his identity as the musical landscape continued to change and as a result he he had not not enjoyed a Top Ten hit in over a decade. The 1980s had seen him besieged by ill health, first due to an overdose in November 1983 and then four years later when he took a turn for the worse during a show, which left him fighting for his life against double pneumonia.
His career had also begun to suffer, with Cash receiving little commercial success or acclaim through his contract with Mercury Records, which had produced uninspired collaborations with the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris and even his own son, John Carter Cash. While many of his earlier albums, most notably I Walk the Line, Orange Blosson Special and the legendary live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, were still regarded as classics, many felt that his glory days were long behind him. A long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and an unexpected appearance on U2’s Zooropa album the following year had proved that he was still a highly respected artist, yet due to a steady decline in popularity during the 1980s a comeback from the Man in Black now seemed highly unlikely. But when he appeared onstage at The Viper Room, the hip venue run by Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp, Cash was embarking on a new chapter in his life, one that would involve critical acclaim, numerous awards and his introduction to a new generation of music lovers. And the man he had to thank for all of this was Rick Rubin.
Having first made a name for himself in the mid-1980s while still in his early twenties as the co-founder of hip-hop label Def Jam, Rubin had helped to bring the genre to the mainstream through his work with LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, before eventually branching out into metal and helping to launch the career of thrash pioneers Slayer. Due to internal conflicts, Rubin left the company in 1988 and formed Def American, where he was able to explore his love of rock and metal by producing The Cult, Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Coming from such different worlds, the pairing of Cash and Rubin seemed an unlikely combination, something that Cash himself was sceptical of. ‘Rick came backstage at a show in Los Angeles and I sat down and listened to what he had to say,’ he explained in his autobiography. ‘I saw problems, though. ‘I don’t want to record on your label and be marketed on the alternative music scene or to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd,’ I told Rick. ‘I have no illusions about who I am, how old I am and what a stretch it might be to relate to these young people.’ That didn’t worry him.’
At this time America was dominated by the Seattle grunge scene, with Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden resonating with young audiences. An aging country singer like Cash would be difficult to market to such a crowd and this was his concern. But first and foremost, Johnny Cash was a storyteller, something that had become lost over the last decade amid a string of mediocre offerings. Cash could become relevant again but somehow Rubin would have to bring him sound and persona into the 1990s, without losing that which had defined his earlier work. His time with Mercury had resulted in some of his most stale and mediocre work, commencing in 1987 with Johnny Cash is Coming to Town and concluding four years later with The Mystery of Life. The label had little interest in their new client, who was struggling to gain airplay on radio stations and was hardly marketable on MTV and so after only a new records they were ready to release him from the contract.
Rubin had first contacted Cash by phone via his agent, Lou Robin, with an offer to sign the singer to his label American. Understandably Cash was hesitant; Rubin’s background was a world away from the Nashville scene that Cash had become immersed in throughout his career. While Cash had enjoyed his own share of media attention, the music industry had changed considerably since his last run of hit singles and now, in his early sixties, he feared that he was out of touch with popular culture and would not be able to relate to Rubin or his target market; the young alternative scene. Much like he had done with other, lesser known, artists, Rubin wanted to reinvent Cash’s sound and rejuvenate his music, adding a contemporary feel while also allowing him to return to his roots. Cash was invited to his home in Los Angeles to work on some new material, with Rubin having set up recording equipment in his living room. While this seemed somewhat unorthodox, it allowed the two to discuss ideas away from the pressures of a studio.
‘There was just such a purity of hearing him in that light,’ Rubin told Billboard in 2003 regarding the casual approach to their earlier sessions together. ‘For all the records he’d made over the years, he’d never really made one like that before.’ The recording sessions took place from 7 to 20 1993, with Rubin capturing Cash’s performance on an Alesis Digital Audio Tape recorder. During these few days together, they bounced ideas off each other, with Rubin hitting the record button then allowing Cash to run through his songs on an acoustic guitar. By the end of the week, with sessions running from early afternoon until late at night, Cash’s scepticism had been replaced with enthusiasm, feeling more excited about writing and performing than he had in years. Having recorded around a hundred songs together, it was Rubin’s intention to use these tapes merely as demos, with session musicians to come in to flesh out the material.
‘I took my music all the way back to its roots, back to the heart,’ stated Cash. ‘Then we listened to it all, marked out the songs that had the late-and-alone, intimate feeling we were looking for and went to work getting them right. We experimented with added instruments, but in the end we decided that it worked better with me alone. We bore down on it that way and got out album: no reverb, no echo, no slapback, no overdubbing, no mixing, just me playing my guitar and singing. I didn’t even use a pick; every guitar note on the album, which we called American Recordings, came from my thumb.’ With the stripped-down approach reducing Cash to just a microphone and a guitar, Rubin was able to catch him at his most vulnerable.
Even before he had been approached by Rubin, Cash had expressed serious interest in recording an album of straightforward songs of love and faith by himself, which he intended to call Alone and Late. Another concept he had toyed with would have seen him working on entirely new material, with no covers or reinterpretations of traditional songs, that he wanted to release as Johnny Cash: Songwriter. But the disappointment of Mercury had left his future somewhat uncertain and following his final record with the label he was unable to gain support for either project. But with Rubin he had found someone who shared a similar sensibility and Cash felt free to explore his creativity for the first time in years. The themes that Cash chose to explore were also reminiscent of his earlier work, with Delia’s Gone, which would eventually serve as the opening track to the album, echoing his 1955 hit Folsom Prison Blues, perhaps most famous for its cold lyrics; ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ Delia’s Gone, an old Delta blues number which was believed to have been about the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, had first been performed by Cash on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.The majority of the songs that would be included in the final tracklist for American Recordings were reworkings of other artists; Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Driftwood, Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright III and even Glenn Danzig. The Beast in Me, which was featured in the 2011 comedy The Hangover: Part II, was written by Nick Lowe who, until a few years earlier, was married to Cash’s stepdaughter, Carlene Carter. Lowe himself would record a version of the song the same year for his own album, The Impossible Bird, although Cash’s remains the definitive among many fans. A handful of original compositions would also make their way onto the album, most notably Drive On, which was told from the point-of-view of a Vietnam veteran who looks back on the horror that he saw and is thankful that he survived, despite many soldiers not being welcomed home when they returned from the war. Unlike most of the album, Rubin and Cash chose to record the song at the latter’s studio cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Two additional songs were recorded live during Cash’s acclaimed performance at The Viper Room, in which he played to an audience that included actress Juliette Lewis and rock star Henry Rollins. American Recordings was released on April 26th 1994 to considerable critical acclaim, earning Cash a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. A promo video for Delia’s Gone, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Anton Corbijn (whose recent work with Nirvana on Heart-Shaped Box had brought him to a whole new audience) and starring model Kate Moss as the victim of the title, caused some controversy when it was aired on MTV, although the video soon found its way onto the cult cartoon Beavis and Butt-head, who mistakenly identify him as Captain Kangaroo and the music he is playing as ‘gangsta rap.’ American Recordings would lead to a close friendship between Cash and Rubin that would lead to several further offerings; three studio albums, a live collaboration with Willie Nelson, a handful of posthumous albums and a box set of rarities.