Friday, March 5, 2010

Twenty-Three Risky Covers by Johnny Cash

(If you want to hear Rollins' story about this shot - go here)

“I tell people if they are interested that they should listen to Johnny on his Sun records and reject all that notorious low-grade stuff he did in his later years. It can’t hold a candlelight to the frightening depth of the man that you hear on his early records. That’s the only way he should be remembered.”
Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone 2009

There's a slow-building Johnny Cash backlash coming. After fifteen years of near-unanimous praise for his six American Recordings albums recorded with producer Rick Rubin between 1994 and Cash' s death in 2003, the snark levels are rising.

“I find it horrible they way they’ve made money out of him releasing all these maudlin recordings. Give me early Cash any day.”
Mark E Smith, The Renegade, 2008

To give the snarky their due, most of these albums do contain novelty filler, such as Depeche Mode's near-tuneless "Personal Jesus", most of which can't just be chalked up to Rubin's influence either. In fact, Rubin was just canny at picking elements of the multitudes that Cash contained to emphasize. Not only did Rubin play up Cash's long-standing morbidity, he also encouraged Cash's love of risky covers, songs who by virtue of their authors, their accompanists or the context they were performed in, challenged Cash's own limitations. Sometimes the results ended up sounding forced and awkward but other times they kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile. Whether they all fully paid off or not, these risky covers are a great part of what makes Cash compelling, even from beyond the grave.

So now, in celebration of Cash's 78th birthday and the release of his 'final' album, American VI: Ain't No Grave, here are twenty-three intriguing, unexpected or just plain odd Cash covers. This mixed bag of songs prove that Cash, a skilled song-writer himself, could be a daring interpreter of others' work. It's sometimes said that Cash, over the course of his career, and in particular on his old TV show, helped bridge the gap between left and right, urban and rural, black and white, old and young. If that sounds a bit much, just put on his version of June Carter and Merle Kilgore's "Ring of Fire" in mixed company and watch.

1. In his Sun Records days of the mid-fifties, Cash did a raw version of folk legend Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" with none of the gloss that The Weavers, Frank Sinatra or even Ernest Tubb had slathered on, in fact it sounds not unlike an American Recordings song.

2. In the early sixties Cash championed Dylan in print ("Shut Up and Let Him Sing") and on record, as evidenced repeatedly over the following years but especially on 1963's Orange Blossom Special which included three Dylan songs, including a growling take on "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright".

3. As folk turned to protest music, Cash helped it along by bringing Native American singer and activist Peter Lafarge's brutal, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" to number three on on the ever-conservative country charts in 1964 and, a few years later, to Richard Nixon's White House, even though the President is said to have asked for Merle Haggard's redneck anthem, "Okie From Muskogee".

4. Another folk-jazz poet (oh wait...) that Johnny supported before it seemed like the most country thing to do was the brilliant Shel Silverstein, whom Johnny helped make world-famous with "A Boy Named Sue" four years after he recorded the literally gallows-humoured, "25 Minutes To Go".

5. One of the charming facets of the oft-overbearing film, Walk the Line, was how candidly it dealt with the thorny issue of June Carter's voice, which shows up in all its acquired-taste glory in this brave-but-flawed 1967 version of Ray Charles' R & B masterwork, "I Got A Woman".

6. In 1969, Cash and Dylan recorded a session that, with with the exception of "Girl From the North Country" remains officially unreleased for some valid reasons, despite some highlights such as their takes on Dylan's hard-to-fuck-up, "One Too Many Mornings".

7. In 1970 Cash recorded the pastoral (and grating to a good many) "If I Was A Carpenter" by singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, which tried to apply some sentimentality to mend the rift between the Woodstock Nation and the Silent Majority.

8. In 1973 Cash recorded a box of tapes he labeled Personal File which was a proto-American Recordings selection of songs featuring just the man and his guitar covering the breadth of American music and including John Prine's inconceivably good,"Paradise (of which Bill Monroe said, "I thought that was a song I overlooked from the 20s") from his 1971 debut.

9. in 1975 Cash covered The Band's monumental historical ballad, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".

10. In 1978 Johnny found some sympathy for the country in the Rolling Stones repertoire and did a ripping version of "No Expectations".

11. Nick Lowe, like Dylan he makes the list twice, not only married Cash's step-daughter, Carlene Carter but he showed Cash the country/rockabilly side of new wave by giving him the bright, tuneful "Without Love" in 1979 and introducing him to Elvis Costello.

12. When Johnny finally covered Springsteen in 1983, he chose to do not one but two songs ("Highway Patrolman" is stunning but "Johny 99" is almost as good) from Springsteen's bleak but beautiful solo acoustic album, Nebraska.

13. In 1985, perhaps the height of the Reagan era, Cash collaborated with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson (himself a possible entry on this list) and Willie Nelson on a leftist legend Woody Guthrie's (and Martin Hoffman's) anti-xenophobic ballad, "Deportees" and they even got Johnny Rodriguez to sing along.

14. While Mercury Records surely saddled him with some Nash-Trash material on his three albums for that label, Cash also got to do versions of Elvis Costello's "The Big Light" in 1987 and "Hidden Shame" in 1990.

15. In 1991 at what may have been the nadir of his career, Cash now without a major label deal, recorded a duet with Texas Christian punk-metal band One Bad Pig (doing his own "Man in Black") - appreciation levels will vary widely but it is proof positive of Cash's utter fearlessness.

16. Cash's re-ascendancy begins with this U2 song from 1993's Zooropa, which Cash smokes despite the band being at a bit of an artistic low themselves.

17. Risky cover sources become legion when Rubin jump-started Cash's career with the bare-bones American Recordings album in 1994 but his brutal take on Nick Lowe's "The Best in Me" is worth highlighting as it helped reinvigorate both men's careers.

18. A few of the grunge-era covers work better then they should (i.e. "Rusty Cage" as rockabilly number) but this Beck song from 1996's American II, with lines like, "Dog food on the floor/And I've been like this before", seems a pretty natural fit.

19. Willie Nelson's "Time of the Preacherman" gets a roughed-up treatment with Cash backed by Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Nirvana's bassist Krist Novaselic, and Alice in Chains' dummer Sean Kinney from the 1996 compilation, Twisted Wilie.

20. The fact that Rubin and Cash didn't search out more underground (call 'em alt. country if you must) writers like Will Oldham, whose magnificent "I See a Darkness" from 2000's American III makes for a haunting duet, instead of dredging up worn-out standards like, "Bridge over Troubled Water" is one of the nagging deficiencies of their collaboration.

21. Cash had Neil Young on his TV show back in '71 and even duetted with him on a painful version of "The Little Drummer Boy" much later on but you have to dig through the the outtakes compiled on Unearthed boxset to find his covers of Young's "Heart of Gold" and "Pocahontas", the latter of which works well despite Cash's known weakness in handling more abstract lyrics.

22. If AA is to be believed that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results then Rubin and Cash were plumb loco to stick to the somber, minimalist alterna-rock covers for five albums until this indisputably stirring version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" from 2002's American IV blew up.

23. While "Hurt" was, in some senses, Cash's crowning achievement, we'll leave you with a possibly more poignant finale; shortly before they each died, nine months apart, Cash and former Clash frontman Joe Strummer duetted on their own death song, a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song".

So don't buy into the Cash-lash, all artists are flawed but the greatest ones, the real risk-takers, leave behind a permanent trace of glory.

Now what do you think of these choices for unusual Johnny Cash cover songs?

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  1. Well, Mr. Zimmerman, at least our memory of Johnny won't include a crappy Christmas album he tried to fob off on his fans while waving the "It's all for a good cause!" flag.

  2. The Man's "Spark of Life" cuts through. Mr. Cash's later work is as strong as the hallowed "Sun" years. Lot's of time in between, but not without it's moments, his live recordings are especially fine...davek

  3. Don't recall anyone calling Picasso's later paintings "low grade" but then Mean Old Bob wasn't miffed at Pablo for not covering his song at twilight. There is regret in Big John not singing Tom Waits' "Long Way Home" and John Lennon's "Steel And Glass". His return to spirituals at the end, however, brought him not only full circle in his journey but provided a stark, stunning insight into the very definition of gospel itself: deeply, almost embarrasingly, personal. As feral and as vital as his early Sun records are, the art of Johnny Cash was not complete until his final recordings. He was at peace with himself and his music when the darkness came. I doubt Bob Dylan will know the same.

  4. Johnny's version of Nick Cave's 'The Mercy Seat' is as dark and sinister as the original despite its altogether more sparse and intimate sound.

    Dylan hasn't made a half-decent record in 40-odd years and you have to go back a little while to find Mark E. Smith's last worthwhile contribution to the music world. Bah humbug!

  5. CPB

    Oh yeah the idea of Cash vitality lasting till the end of the days was the whole idea behind the post.

    Savage Henry
    There was a lot of kissed opportunities with the series and more Waits would have been great - it was hard not to out "Down There By the Train" here but I held myself to one song per American album.

    Sir Palomin
    Glad you enjoyed.

    While I can find virtues in almost any Dylan album, I think he should be careful about that whole pot-calling-the-kettle-black business.

  6. Loved the One Bad Pig/Cash collaboration. Maybe a low point for his career overall, but that song's a gem.


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