Who’s Gonna Cry When Old John Dies?
One Last Grand Visit With the Man in Black

A friend of mine e-mailed me this week to tell me her father died. A couple of days after that, another friend called me to tell me she just got back from her grandmother’s funeral. There’s something unnatural about the sheer amount of death we’ve seen this year. I’ve written far too much about it in the past few months, and I’m tired of having to. Only two weeks until we can bid this awful year goodbye.

But it’s fitting, somehow, that this, my final new review of 2003, is about Johnny Cash. Cash was another victim of 2003, passing away in September at age 71. I’m finding as I arrange my thoughts for this piece that, just as I have no authoritative voice on death, I have no similar voice on Johnny Cash. His loss seems impossible – it’s almost like his legend and his presence transcend the idea of a frail human form to house them.

There just aren’t enough superlatives for Cash, but here are a few anyway. Some may call him a singer, and in fact he referred to himself as such, but what he brought to the songs he graced with his voice was so much more. Cash inhabited songs, like few others could do – he brought depth, power and layers of meaning and feeling to virtually any lyric, simply by being Johnny Cash. The great Cash songs always centered around the same conflict evident in his persona – the troubled, often violent man crawling his way along the road to redemption. Cash lived this so completely that one can feel the eternal struggle in every word he sang.

Cash was always surprising people. This was the guy, after all, who found some of his most receptive audiences behind the walls of prisons. One can lazily type him as a country singer, given that he was a member of the Grand Old Opry, but he lived far beyond the limits of genre restrictions. He was folk, rock, pop, blues, and any other idiom he chose, but everything he did came out sounding like Johnny Cash, labels be damned.

And leave it to senior-citizen Cash to save his biggest surprise for the end. Certainly no one expected the kind of creative and popular career revival Cash has seen in the past decade. It’s largely thanks to a remarkable partnership with American Records honcho Rick Rubin, best known for his work with the likes of Slayer and the Beastie Boys. Rubin has a knack for producing artists so that the result sounds definitive, as if he can isolate and replicate the way those musicians always wished they could sound. His plan for Cash was astoundingly simple – get Johnny, an acoustic guitar, a microphone and a bunch of songs together in his living room, record a stark live document, and then promote it with all the respect Cash’s legend deserves.

Thus began the American Recordings series, an amazing set of four albums that cast Cash as an interpreter of just about anything. In addition to old blues and gospel standards, Cash covered such unlikely sources as Soundgarden, Danzig, U2 and Sting on these records, with mostly incredible results. His version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” gave him his first bona fide hit in ages, scored him several award nominations (fueled by a raw and beautiful video by Mark Romanek), and made him stunningly relevant to a modern audience. In Cash’s hands, the song was transformed from merely heartfelt to positively shattering, a collapse of worlds in three minutes.

Cash’s death came mid-project. He and Rubin had been working on the fifth American record, and Cash had finished demos of roughly 50 songs. Additionally, Rubin had assembled a box set of outtakes and new recordings to celebrate 10 years of their partnership, and he had just sent the CDs to Cash for review when he succumbed. That box set is called Unearthed, and while it was never intended as a memorial, it serves as a fitting capstone, not just to the last 10 years of Cash’s creative revitalization, but to his grand career as a whole.

Unearthed is divided into five CDs and housed in a gorgeous cloth-bound book design in an embossed slipcase. Even in shape and design, it looks like a monument, and the music inside is no less monolithic. Here we have three discs of unreleased outtakes from the American sessions, a new album of spirituals and an admittedly unnecessary but still worthy compilation of the best tracks from the four American albums. All together, it’s 79 songs, and not one is not worth hearing. Everything that was ever great about Johnny Cash is represented in this box, and it’s no wonder it takes five CDs to hold it all.

Starting from the beginning: Who’s Gonna Cry is the first volume of outtakes, taken from the live acoustic sessions for American Recordings. If you liked that one, this disc is blessedly more of the same, with more of a focus on classic songs like “Long Black Veil” and “Waiting For a Train.” Cash excelled in this setting, just the man and his guitar, and it’s here that one can best hear the power of his voice. When Cash sings, it’s like hearing the voice of music itself. But the best moments are the faltering, human ones. When he gets to the title phrase, in his own “The Caretaker,” it’s chilling: “Who’s gonna cry when old John dies,” he sings, and one can’t help but think on Cash’s own mortality.

Cash’s second American album, Unchained, hooked him up with an ideal backing band – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Though several other musicians, including the Red Devils, make contributions, it’s the Heartbreakers who bring the best stuff to Trouble In Mind, the second disc here. The emphasis is on blues rock, and Lord, are these performances amazing. Just a few highlights: Carl Perkins guests on Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and his own “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” Cash stomps his way through an unadorned reading of Steve Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand,” he reinvents Neil Young’s signature “Heart of Gold,” and he makes Jimmie Rodgers’ “T For Texas” his own.

The most affecting of these recordings, however, has to be his duet with his late wife, June Carter Cash, on his own “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow.” It’s a lovely song of eternal devotion, recorded not long before June’s death, and their two voices playing off of each other is heartbreaking. That alone is worth the price of Unearthed.

But wait, there’s more. The third volume, Redemption Songs, is the only one that feels like a selection of outtakes, so diverse is the track listing. Cash duets with the late Joe Strummer of the Clash on Bob Marley’s title tune, and if you can imagine that, you’ll have no problem with the rest of this. Cash soars on Jimmy Webb’s great “Wichita Lineman,” rocks through traditional tune “Salty Dog,” puts his stamp on Stephen Foster’s immortal “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and invites Glen Campbell to the mic for a read of “Gentle On My Mind.” Most surprising here is a stark version of “You Are My Sunshine,” which emphasizes the incredible darkness at the song’s center. That all of these tunes can exist on one CD serves as proof that typing Cash as a country artist is simple laziness.

As grand as everything that precedes it is, the capper here is disc four, My Mother’s Hymn Book. The last real album Cash completed, this is a collection of 15 hymns taken quite literally from a book owned by his mother. The versions are naked and passionate, featuring only Cash and his guitar, and it only takes one or two songs to realize that he’s singing from his very soul here, perhaps more so than on any of his previous works. Cash’s music has long been about striving for redemption, and it’s fitting that his final recordings center on that redemption, wholly and completely. This is deceptively simple, yet quite powerful stuff.

And if disc five, The Best of Cash on American, is superfluous, it also serves as a fine reminder of just how lucky we’ve been to witness this resurgence from one of America’s icons. Opening with “Delia’s Gone,” a great Cash original, the disc brings us through some of the riskier choices Cash has made recently, all of which paid off beautifully. His take on Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is a revelation, as are versions of U2’s “One” and Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” “I Hung My Head” was Sting’s attempt at writing a Johnny Cash song, so his reclaiming it here is only natural, and the result is superb. And though “The Man Comes Around” was one of the last songs Cash wrote, it’s a quintessential Johnny Cash piece, full of frightening redemption. It’s all capped with “Hurt,” which Cash turns into a meditation on mortality.

I really don’t know what else to say. Here are 79 songs that argue fairly convincingly that Johnny Cash was one of a kind, a genius interpreter with a soul 20 miles high. While it’s true that they don’t make them like they used to, they honestly never made them like Johnny Cash, and never will again. If you don’t understand how important his loss is, Unearthed is a consistently engrossing way to inform yourself. If after listening, you still don’t get it, there’s no hope. Cash leaves behind a sadder, shoddier, more artificial world than the one he knew, and even though we all still have to live in it, we have his work to remind us of a time when things mattered, people were real, and genuine redemption was difficult, eternally rewarding work.

Rest in peace, Johnny. We’ll miss you.

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Next week is Christmas, of course, so enjoy yourselves. The Year-End Top 10 List will hit on New Year’s Eve. After that, year four.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.