American Idol

A spellbinding new boxed set pays tribute to the great Johnny Cash.

Bubba Ho-Tep Cedar Lee Theatre
Powerful and poignant, Cash Unearthed features four - discs of previously unreleased material.
Powerful and poignant, Cash Unearthed features four discs of previously unreleased material.
Johnny Cash never did know how to give up the ghost, let alone want to. He combined sin and salvation, first succumbing to the temptation of drugs, then conquering them as he merged his pioneering rock and roll style with older, more timeless genres. Over the course of six decades, Cash blended rock, folk, and country into a new and unique folkloric approach. A contradictory and unintentional oracle, Cash loved amphetamines and Ronald Reagan, advocated for Native Americans, and created a unique canon spanning the gothic rockabilly of "Ring of Fire," the Tarantino surrealism of "Folsom Prison Blues," the Americana of "Great Speckled Bird," wellspring gospel, occasional blues, and punk rock. It was all music to Johnny Cash.

Four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, Johnny passed away on September 12, his innards fatally porous from diabetes-related complications. Too bad he never got a chance to hear the final mix of Cash Unearthed, a new boxed set of his American Recordings. The 79 tracks stem from sessions Cash did with label founder Rick Rubin between 1993 and 2003 in Los Angeles and Nashville. The first four discs are previously unreleased material; the fifth is a strong compilation of American Recordings tunes, ending with "Hurt," Cash's painfully honest maturation of Trent Reznor's bitter junkie ballad. Cash Unearthed is a revelation and an affirmation.

The albums Cash released over the past decade -- American Recordings, Unchained, American III: Solitary Man, and last year's unusually eerie and dark American IV: The Man Comes Around -- are touchstones of American popular music. Produced by rap-metal pioneer Rubin, they focus on Cash's voice, guitar, and sensibility. They made the Man in Black an even more mythic figure: On these recordings, Cash often resembled the pale rider, death himself. Perhaps that's one reason the Cash original "The Man Comes Around" -- presented in different versions on two of the Unearthed CDs -- is especially chilling and powerful. Not only does the box contain a great deal of "new" music; its hardbound, 104-page booklet is packed with Cash's own commentary as well as contributions from many of his collaborators, including Tom Petty, Nick Cave, and Rubin. It also features a track-by-track discussion by Cash, Rubin, and others involved in the recordings.

Rubin has said all he ever wanted to do was to record Cash singing all the songs he ever loved, and he did that here -- particularly on the fourth disc. My Mother's Hymn Book is a thoroughly spiritual, naked album of 15 tunes from the white Baptist spiritual tradition Cash shared with his mother. It's plainspoken, fervent, understated, and almost unbearably real: Cash recorded it with longtime engineer David Ferguson in July, just after his wife's death.

"Every record that I've been involved with Rick making with Johnny, none of them are rejects," says Ferguson, who engineered albums that Cash made for American and Mercury, his previous label. "They were just songs that didn't fit in with the concept of whatever record he was doing at the time. It's not that the quality wasn't there. It was just not what they were wanting to portray at the time."

The idea for Cash Unearthed was not a recent one, says Ferguson. "Johnny knew all about the box set, and Johnny was into it. I would send Johnny CDs about what we were thinking about having on the box set, and he would listen to them and give his feedback."

The box's numerous guest artists include late Clash frontman Joe Strummer (on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"), volatile chanteuse Fiona Apple (on Cat Stevens's "Father and Son"), Carl Perkins (on Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man"), and old buddies Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (on a cool version of Neil Young's surreal "Pocahontas").

Besides the terrific hymn disc, volume two of the collection, subtitled Trouble in Mind, is the strongest, spanning a rendition of Roy Orbison's "Down the Line" that's almost as good as the one Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun 50 years ago, along with two very different takes on Dolly Parton's lovely "I'm a Drifter" and a rocking rendition of Steve Earle's great anti-gun tune, "The Devil's Right Hand."

The collection attests to Cash's and Rubin's appetites, and even more material is likely to surface, including an American V. "I think there are still a few things in the well," Ferguson says. "Johnny had recorded about 50 songs for this last album, the new album, American V, but there aren't 50 keepers there, because he hadn't finished singing some of them." All the same, 15 to 20 are usable and will form the basis of a new Cash record sometime next year.

Although Ferguson has engineered U2, pub-rocker Ian Gomm, and numerous folk and country acts, "I always felt I was on top of the world anytime I was behind the boards recording Johnny Cash, because to me, it was the most important job in the world. I knew I was lucky to be doing it, every time I ever did it. I never took it for granted. And I knew some day it would end."

Not only was Cash struggling with his debilitation all the way to his death -- which was made disturbingly apparent in the video for "Hurt," a clip so spare and forceful, it made June Carter Cash cry -- he was also crafting new material.

"He was always writing," Ferguson says. "There's one song, one of the last he wrote, called 'Asthma Comin' Down Like the 309,' a humorous song about asthma. He had asthma real bad, so he wrote a song about asthma that he could sing with asthma. He was funny as hell."

"Asthma" is sure to surface on American V, Ferguson says, along with Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer," the old Sinatra hit "Love's Been Good to Me," and "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again," a Johnny-June duet.

Was there any kind of music Cash didn't like? "Johnny was a rhythm man," Ferguson says. "Johnny loved rhythm in music of all kinds. I'm sure there was stuff Johnny didn't care for too much, but I never heard Johnny talk bad about anybody in music. If anybody played him a song, he'd have nothing but encouraging things to say."

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