NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash’s Unearthed

Where the Soul of Man Never Dies

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

You asked me to pick my favorite album I’ve ever made and this is it, My Mother’s Hymn Book. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was to it. I’m so glad that I got that done.
Johnny Cash, in the liner notes for Unearthed

The most important thing that producer Rick Rubin ever did or — ever will do — was to ask Johnny Cash to just sit down with his guitar in front of a microphone and sing the songs he loved, the songs he wanted to sing. This was in the early 90s when Cash had long ago been discarded by Nashville’s record labels and was convinced that his recording career was over. When Rubin said he’d like to record Cash, the latter replied, “What for?”

The answer was the four American Recordings albums that Rubin and Cash collaborated on. The results not only gave Cash a renewed career but also resulted in a remarkable new chapter in country music history and in all of American popular music, for that matter. Cash’s simple and direct songs, delivered in a frank, straight, technologically unimpaired artist-to-listener mode, struck a chord with new audiences. The many awards started to come for Cash and when Unchained claimed a Grammy for best country album of the year, Cash took the opportunity to run his now-famous flipping-the-bird-photo in Billboard, with the inscription reading, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”

What a great, simple and pure concept — just Johnny Cash and his guitar and a microphone, just like when he started out auditioning for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1955. And he starts singing and all of a sudden, he’s reaching out and taking your hand tenderly — or more likely grabbing you by the throat — and saying, “I think you need to hear this. I think you might like it.” What he recorded was at times painfully intimate but made all the more beautiful by that intimacy and immediacy and vulnerability. And its utter simplicity. Just as he later did with the video for “Hurt,” Cash was acting without precedents, blazing his own trail once again. He was just singing what he felt in his heart.

He and Rubin recorded batches of songs beyond those that made their way onto the four American Recordings releases. They’re now collected in the new 5-CD box set Cash Unearthed. Volume One is titled Who’s Gonna Cryand includes such old Cash favorites as “Long Black Veil” and “Flesh and Blood.” He also performs favorites by Jimmie Rodgers and Billy Joe Shaver and an alternate version of Tom Waits’ “Down There by the Train.” Volume Two, Trouble in Mind, includes accompaniment by Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers on most of the songs. Highlights include a rocking version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” with fellow Sun Records pioneer Carl Perkins and a fuzz-toned reading of Steve Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand.” Especially striking is a version with alternate lyrics of his eloquent Vietnam War saga “Drive On.”

Volume Three, titled Redemption Songs, includes one of the late Joe Strummer’s last recordings on a duet with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Other duets are Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” sung here with Fiona Apple, “Cindy” with Nick Cave and “Gentle on My Mind” with Glen Campbell. Volume Five is a collection of “Best Of” songs from the four American Recordings CDs, with such selections as “Delia’s Gone,” “Rusty Cage,” “Solitary Man,” “The Man Comes Around,” “Hurt” and “We’ll Meet Again.”

What Cash refers to in the liner notes as the favorite album that he ever recorded appears here as Volume Four of Unearthed as My Mother’s Hymn Book. It’s the true heart and soul of this work and it’s simplicity at its purest. Some of Cash’s strongest childhood memories from the farm in Dyess, Ark., were of his mother Carrie playing and singing her favorite hymns from her Heavenly Highway Hymns book. Throughout his career, he tried to include at least one gospel song or hymn on each of his albums, as a salute to his mother. When he decided to record this album, he found his mother’s ragged old hymnbook and picked his favorites from its pages. And he sings them, very simply, with just his guitar accompanying him. Very plain and unadorned — and eloquent.

The songs are timeless hymns: “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven,” “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies,” “Just As I Am” and the rest of them. Cash never forgot singing “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” at his brother Jack’s funeral in 1944, and he lovingly re-creates that feeling here. Cash sounds very much peaceful and at one with the eternal verities of these rugged old hymns.

What we lost when Johnny Cash died was our most enduring musical conscience. There are others holding up their end of the American fabric and the social contract: Bruce Springsteen and Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and Steve Earle and John Prine and a few more that I’m disremembering right now. But Cash was the whole deal, the real deal, the strongman who could carry you and me along on the journey. He knew the path and the landmarks and could show the way.