[Today: Stirring comebacks…]
Johnny Cash and Solomon Burke was each a legend in his own way – Cash an internationally famous, Bunyan-esque character who popped pills and wore black for all the right reasons; Burke a soul pioneer who sported a crown and carried a scepter, and was revered by musicians and music geeks alike. Cash had his own TV show and married June Carter, daughter of country scions A.P. and Mother Maybelle Carter. Burke never quite broke through to mainstream success and worked in the family mortuary. Cash made country music and Burke made soul, but both were deeply influenced by gospel music (Burke was also influenced by country music). After decades in the business, both men saw their careers bottom out – Cash in the late 80s, Burke in the late 90s – after several uninspired, over-produced albums.
Both had their careers revived by sympathetic producers (Rick Rubin for Cash, Joe Henry for Burke) on small labels (American and Fat Possum, respectively) who realized that the biggest asset these artists possessed was the pure strength and integrity of their voices. On American Recordings (1994) and Don’t Give Up On Me (2001), Rubin and Henry put their artists in the sparest possible settings and let those legendary voices shine through. Both artists were given big assists by admiring musicians who wrote songs specifically for these albums. Cash got tunes from Glenn Danzig and Tom Waits, and threw in imaginative covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Kris Kristofferson and others. Burke meanwhile got originals by Bob Dylan, Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Lowe. Both albums touch on sin and redemption, mortality and the almighty, love gone wrong and long black trains.
These albums awoke a new generation of fans to the timeless genius of Johnny Cash and Solomon Burke, and both albums made critics wonder aloud how the music business could have so perpetually mis-used such talented voices. These stirring comebacks were arguably the best albums released in their respective years – Mojo magazine named Don’t Give Up On Me as its pick for the best album of 2001, and American Recordings is widely regarded as a modern masterpiece. The artists who contributed their talents to these albums undoubtedly did it out of love for Cash and Burke. But they also did themselves a big favor by helping to provide the industry with a pair of rock solid blueprints for how to gracefully handle living legends who’ve still got it…
Listen: Thirteen [Cash]
Listen: Don’t Give Up On Me [Solomon Burke]
Listen: Delia’s Gone [Cash]
Listen: Flesh And Blood [Solomon Burke]