How Johnny Cash's career was revived

For record producer Rick Rubin, resurrecting the career of Johnny Cash meant forging a musical - and spiritual - bond with the country legend
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The Independent Culture

What first gave me the idea of working with Johnny Cash is a question I don't have an answer to. It just felt like the right thing to do. Most of the artists I'd worked with at the time were young, artists like the Beastie Boys, Slayer and LL Cool J, so a country legend in his sixties, who had been making records forever, was a whole different perspective. I remember I'd been thinking, in general terms, "Who's really great but not making great records right now?" and Johnny was the first and greatest that came to mind. He was playing not far from Los Angeles, where I live, at a dinner theatre in Orange County, so I went to see him play and met him after the show.

I can't remember much at all about what we said, only that we got along really well. There was an immediate sense of connection - very powerful, spiritual almost. I think that if we were to have spent the same 15 minutes sitting together with our eyes closed, not speaking, the connection would have been the same. And it continued through the years we worked together and even after he passed away. It was there when we were making the new album, American V.

What did he see in me? Well, a friend of his told me, after the funeral, that he loved me because I saw something in him that he didn't know he still had. That I thought better of him than he thought of himself. That my support basically enabled him to be Johnny Cash. Because at that time he felt discarded. He thought that his recording career was over. I think he felt he was still doing well on tour - before he got ill, he'd done around 300 shows a year for 40-odd years - but having been dropped by Columbia Records and then not having much success with the records he made for Mercury, he thought the recording part was finished. If I'm honest, probably one of the reasons that he was open to this kind of close collaboration and basically trying anything was really just out of thinking that it didn't matter.

So we started what became an ongoing process of just recording all the time - lots of songs, really a lot; songs he'd chosen and songs I wanted him to sing - and this went on right until the end of his life. For American V alone he recorded about 60 songs, with probably 28 or 29 that warrant coming out; I'm also working on American VI.

We experimented all the time - recording solo, with rock bands, blues musicians - just changing the way he viewed the record-making process. That took time, because when you've been recording for as long as Johnny had, you think you know how to do it, and of course he did, but at that point it wasn't so greatly important to him any more. So part of the experimentation was to give him the head space of working hard and doing whatever it took for a record to be great, instead of: "Well, here are 10 songs and I'm going to record them so I have a new album."

I can remember what I was thinking, though I don't think I shared it with him at the time, which was that most of the artists I worked with are younger artists, and the passion that a young person brings to making their first album is a really big deal, it's like their whole life, and with an artist who has made a hundred albums, it doesn't have that same importance, it's just another album. And the goal was really to reframe the experience from being allowed to think that just another album is OK - everything we do has to be the best we've ever done.

We had no preconceived idea for that first American Recordings album. It was an acoustic album simply because, going back through all these experiments, nothing beat the stuff recorded in my living room. My feeling was, if the demos are better then the demos are the album. It just felt like that was the essence of it. It was very powerful. Everyone loved that album.

It won a Grammy - they all did, but that one was special to Johnny, after the way he had been discarded. He got a real satisfaction from the way that he was talked about in the press and that he was selling more records than he had in a while. But he got the biggest kick out of young kids liking him. I think they were drawn to the same darkness and individuality and outlaw quality had first attracted me to Johnny. The Man in Black figure was really just a mythological version of that electrifying energy that he had.

The success made him feel better about himself and very excited about the recording process again - which I think in many ways saved his life. Because when he became ill and stopped touring - a very difficult time, since that's really how he identified himself, the guy on-stage every night - recording took on a bigger role in his life. By the end it became less about making albums and more just about the therapeutic value of music; it wasn't so much about, "Boy, we're going to have a great album," it was more, "We need to keep this process going because this is what's keeping him alive."

I had a phone conversation with him at the hospital the day June Carter, his wife, passed away. He was clearly a wreck, the worst I'd ever heard him. His voice was weak and shaky and he sounded beaten, but he said, "I've got to work, I've got to keep going."

It frustrated him greatly that his voice shook and he was unable to play guitar, but he kept going. Actually he seemed to be getting better at the end, even though he was so ill. He'd been working with a new doctor and was able to see better, read better and starting to walk and getting back to being able to play. So I was very surprised that he went when he went. He was going to come to California to record with me the week after he passed away in September 2003.

I don't remember exactly when, but at one point during his illness we started taking Holy Communion together on the phone. When he was out here one time I brought a video of this TV evangelist, Gene Scott, that I played in the studio. Scott was told he had cancer and refused to take any of the medicine and just fasted and prayed and did communion every day while he was sick and the cancer went into remission. Johnny really liked it. We talked about what a sacred act communion was. And I said I'd never done it and could we do it together? And he said: "That would be great, I have a communion kit."

So we made it a ritual that we did on the phone every afternoon around 2pm LA time. He would say the words and I listened and then we would both visualise eating the bread and drinking the wine. I kept up doing the communion for a long time after he passed away. I would tune into him and hear his voice saying what he would say and I would visualise doing what he would say was happening.

It was very hard going back to the tapes he made for American V. Emotionally hard. And then with all of the attention around the biopic, Walk the Line. The record company people were always, "We need to capitalise on the movie," but my feeling was "No, we really need to distance ourselves from the movie." Not that there's anything wrong with the movie, but it's essentially a fiction - even if the story is true it's still actors playing roles, it's not a documentary - so I wanted our stuff, which I feel is much more personal and intimate, and where Johnny was now, not to be lumped in with that.

I think this album shows Johnny as very truthful, honest, open-hearted, real and brave - because to me it's a very edgy record to make at that stage of your life, and to sing such personal, vulnerable songs. I think it's a beautiful record, although not everything in it is beautiful, if that makes sense. The beauty is in the humanity of it.

'American V: A Hundred Highways' is out now on Loose/American Recordings