As a rule, I don’t tend to like modern country music.
I imagine that there is some good stuff out there but unfortunately, what I am mainly exposed to doesn’t really catch me at all and it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because it all sounds the same to me. “Something about the fourth of July, having a barbecue on the fourth of July. My girl doesn’t like Armani suits, she just likes the dirt on my boots” etc etc.
Now, old school country music I can get behind. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and the man in black, Johnny Cash. Interestingly enough, it’s a man who was famous for producing the Beastie Boys and Slayer that brought old country music to my attention. His name is Rick Rubin.
It was 1994, I had settled into my 90’s alternative phase of music pretty solidly at this point. My music rotation consisted of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog, Ministry and Danzig (for some reason, his material had entered my consciousness) and the Star Wars score on heavy study nights. I had also become an avid viewer of The New Music on City TV and there was a piece on Johnny Cash and his new album produced by Rick Rubin. In the interview, Cash mentions the different songwriters he covered on the album including Leonard Cohen (who’s album The Future, I loved) and Glenn Danzig. And then Cash managed to do something I didn’t think possible at the time.
He got a music video banned on Much Music.
How bad ass was that? I mean, at the time banned videos were reserved for metal bands and too sexy for tv Madonna videos, not country acts (with the exception of Garth Brooks’s “Thunder Rolls” video). At the time, Much Music had an occasional show on Friday nights called Too Hot For Much where they would do special airings of these banned videos (at around midnight) with a studio audience and experts to discuss if the banning the video was the right thing to do or not. I can’t honestly remember what the other videos were, what the discussion around the video was or even the video itself but I do remember thinking “That was an awesome song. I must have that album.”
The next order my mother placed to Columbia House CD club lead to me ordering American Recordings.
I was instantly in love with the vibe and sound of American Recordings. The songwriting was top notch as Cash covered traditional folk and country songs along with a few songs by Danzig, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen. Beyond the songs, I think what spoke to me the most about American Recordings is that it sounded pure.
In my mind, part of the reason that grunge bands and the alternative nation rose to such heights in the 90s was a reaction to the overstuffed, overproduced hard rock and metal bands of the 80s much the same way punk had exploded in the 70s as a reaction to disco and arena rock. Rock fans yearned for something simple and amazing instead of bloated and overdone. American Recordings was the purest version of this. It was a voice, it was a guitar and that was it.
While I can’t be sure it was all Rubin’s doing, I think he had a pretty big hand in turning this album into not only a classic in Cash’s massive catalog but a classic period. I’m not a record producer or an expert on these things but part of the joy of American Recordings is the way it sounds, especially for the studio recordings. The studio songs (which were recorded in Cash’s living room) sound like Rubin placed two mics, one in front of Cash’s mouth and one by the guitar and then Rubin hit record. Now, in reality, I imagine there were a number of takes, vocals were done separately and maybe even some studio tinkering but listening to the album, you would never know. You can hear the fingers against the guitar strings, even some minor screw ups in Cash’s playing which somehow just add to the song.
Now in an interesting idea, two of the songs were recorded live at The Viper Room (then owned by actor Johnny Depp and unfortunately famous for being the place where River Phoenix died). Once again, it’s just Cash with a guitar with the added ambiance of a live crowd. What’s odd is usually, this would be jarring. To switch from studio recording to live audio just sounds kind of weird on an album but here it works. Maybe it’s the fact that the studio recordings are really raw and live sounding in the first place or the fact that many of us first heard Johnny Cash via a live recording of “A Boy Named Sue”, either way, it just sounds like a natural fit despite the fact that the live songs are both surrounded by the studio tracks.
As a teen and now as an adult, my favorite song on the album is “Delia’s Gone”. Is a short, folky song about murder and the effect it has on one’s conscious. If someone were to ask my five songs, to sum up, Johnny Cash’s music, this would be in there.
Now the lingering effect that this album had on me as a music listener was pretty huge. At that point, I had pretty much-dismissed country music as a genre I would ever be interested in. It was the music both of my grandmother’s listened to or in the case of new country, the music for people who thought The Eagles were too hard. But this one album changed my mind. If this one Johnny Cash album could be so amazing, certainly there were others. It was from Cash that I would dive into Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. From then I would check out Hank Williams. It’s due to Johnny Cash that I went to see O Brother Where Art Thou and ended up loving the soundtrack as it was made up of mainly traditional American country and folk tunes.
Cash would go on to release a number of other stellar albums with Rick Rubin at the helm but the first one is my favorite and introduced me to a broader world of music, a world where country music wasn’t just Shania Twain and wasn’t just about pick up trucks. A world of country music about folk tales, drinking, prayer and murder.
Next week, we keep with a bit of a darker theme with music that helped spurn on the beginnings of goth and you also get to find out how huge of a nerd I was in high school. Stay Tuned!