[Today: Ron Lim and Johnny Cash rearrange my outlook on music…]
I’m here to testify – American Recordings changed my life. That’s a bold proclamation, and it’s not one I make lightly. There are a handful of albums that have changed my life as profoundly as this one – Electric Ladyland, Abbey Road, Raising Hell, Kind Of Blue – but it’s a pretty exclusive club that doesn’t figure to grow much larger.
Johnny Cash was my grandfather’s favorite musician – consequently my mom couldn’t stand his music, and it was never played around the house while I was growing up. Which means that The Man In Black was a blank slate for me when Ron Lim leaned across the aisle at work and offered a listen to his copy of American Recordings. I’d read some favorable reviews, and was intrigued by the fact that Cash had chosen to work with hip-hop/metal producer Rick Rubin. It was fall of 1994, I’d just moved to San Francisco 6 months before, and my head was fairly spinning with the wonders of the city. I was open to new experiences, and what previously would have been sunk by association with “country music” was suddenly worth a shot.
The stark simplicity of Rubin’s production – just Cash, a guitar, and a mic – was brilliant, and it miraculously restored Cash to his rightful place as one of the most powerful singers in music. American Recordings contains a variety of material. Cash re-imagines two songs he’d recorded in the 60’s, including a haunting ‘Delia’s Gone’ that blows the doors off his original. It had a few well-chosen covers, including Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’. And he nailed a couple of songs written specifically for him – Glenn Danzig’s ‘Thirteen’ and Tom Waits’ ‘Down There By The Train’. Cash was alternately a killer, a cowboy, a drunk, a preacher, a wife-beater, a comedian. Throughout the album he used his granite voice to make each song his own – a spellbinding performance that earned him a new generation of fans.
But as good as American Recordings is – and it’s very good – it’s important for me because it vaporized the musical barriers that had previously guided my listening habits. Genres suddenly seemed much less important, and from there it was a short hop to Fela Kuti, The Peddlers, Bach, The Anthology Of American Folk Music, Nuggets, Hank Williams, John Fahey, The Stooges, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I might not have considered if American Recordings hadn’t rocked my mind.
Thank you Mr. Cash.
Listen: Delia’s Gone
Listen: Drive On