Friday, 6 May 2011

Tony Tost on Johnny Cash's American Recordings

I've enthused about the Tony Tost's America podcast before on Carnival Saloon. So I was delighted to learn some months ago that Tony was writing a book in Continuum's 33 ⅓ series about Johnny Cash's incredible 1994 comeback album American Recordings. It's a terrific, illuminating read that I'd recommend to anyone who loves Johnny Cash, and that record in particular.

Earlier in the week I asked Tony about his book and Johnny Cash's late career resurgence. Tony will also contribute to a future post with his suggestions of songs he thinks Johnny Cash shoud have covered on the records he made with Rick Rubin. Enjoy the interview...

The approach and style of the 33 ⅓ books are all quite different. What was your pitch when you suggested writing one about American Recordings?

My basic pitch was that American Recordings was the album that solidified the omnipresent, larger-than-life Cash that is still in circulation. My conceit was that I alone could tell the story of how it happened. I also suggested that Cash was a resolutely literary musician and that he could be best understood as a kind of novelist with one great, landmark character: the mythic version of himself. Using this framework, I argued, I would then turn American Recordings into a window onto the Cash legend as a whole. I tried to make it clear that I would shoot for the moon on this book, that I would try to get deeper into the man’s mind than any other writer would venture.

Cash released more than 50 albums in his career and you’re adamant that American Recordings is his very best. Why?

One, it was something I needed to tell myself in order to bring my total energy and conviction to this particular album. Two, it’s true. Cash wasn’t really the greatest albums artist, so it’s not like he had a series of masterpiece albums with which to contend. He was a Nashville artist in most ways, and Nashville still utilises a sort of pre-Beatles template: recognisable stars taking on the latest songs of the songwriting factory. That sounds like a disparaging description, but I don’t mean it to be. Bob McDill, who wrote amazing hits for Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, Alabama, Alan Jackson and others, was the consummate Nashville songwriter-for-hire, and he’s one of my ten or so favorite songwriters ever, in any genre.

But even his best songs for Don Williams are spread out over a decade of albums. And that’s how it goes, even with interpretive geniuses like George Jones, Tanya Tucker or George Strait. Usually, landmark albums come from singer-songwriter country artists - Merle Haggard has had a bunch, and Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton have had some - or from singers working closely with a songwriter, like Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, an album of Billy Joe Shaver songs, or Bobby Bare’s Lullabies, Legends and Lies, an album of Shel Silverstein numbers.

After his songwriting well went dry in the early 60s, a lot of Cash’s albums were in the hits-and-filler vein. It’s fun to sift through them to find little lost nuggets here and there (like Orphan of the Road on A Man in Black, or Cocaine Carolina on John R. Cash), but there aren’t very many albums that work as a cohesive, compelling whole vision, like Honky Tonk Heroes does.

The live San Quentin album I find to be the next most vital Cash album, and I’m also partial to some early 70s work, like A Man in Black. His very first albums for Columbia, like The Fabulous Johnny Cash, Songs of Our Soil and Now, There Was a Song are fantastic also. His Sun Records output towers over American Recordings (and much of recorded music) but that was as a singles artist (though endless compilations of his Sun Records work have been sold ever since).

My not-so-radical notion is that the best albums deliver great songs and a unique aural and thematic world. My favorite albums - Exile on Main Street, Tumbleweed Connection, Alien Lanes, Warren Zevon, The Band, Rumours, Moon Pix, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Toys in the Attic - do both consistently from start to finish. American Recordings has an urgency that is unique in the Cashian canon. He is both vulnerable and virile of voice. The comparisons to Springsteen’s Nebraska are apt, because there is a casual intimacy that makes the record very compelling, moving and discomforting. Other Cash albums are great products. American Recordings sounds like an emanation.

Do you think the film Walk the Line would have been made if Johnny hadn’t made American Recordings?

I don’t think Walk the Line gets made without the Rick Rubin resurrection narrative, no. And American Recordings was the start of that. Walk the Line is basically the prequel to the Hurt video. And we don’t get the Hurt song or video without the preceding stunt covers of Danzig, Soundgarden, Beck, Depeche Mode that Rubin encouraged.

I’m waiting for the sequel to Walk the Line, which I think would be a very different kind of movie. You’d have Cash’s career decline and missteps back into addiction and into adultery. You’d have Johnny and June’s corresponding religious fervor. There’s the traumatic robbery they suffered in Jamaica, when their son John Carter was held at gunpoint while thieves ransacked the place. There’s the infamous ostrich attack on the Cash property, with Johnny getting sliced open after picking a fight with the bird. That’s also a part of the Cash story. I’m interested in how one generates meaning and identity in the midst of all of this tawdry kind of crap, as opposed to the fairy tale of Walk the Line, that somehow suggests all the crap is erased by the redemptive powers of true love.

Could Johnny have staged a comeback quite as successfully without Rick Rubin?

There wouldn’t have been the publicity hook without Rubin, definitely. And probably not the opportunity, either. American Recordings really has become the blueprint for golden years comebacks. Just about every comeback album since then has picked up at least one of American Recordings' three hooks: 1) a stripped-down sound, to convey authenticity; 2) a mature artist working with a young buck producer; or 3) a mature artist taking on the songs of much younger artists. It’s a pretty good formula. I mean, I love the Glen Campbell comeback album from a couple of years ago, which is basically him covering Green Day and the Replacements in the style of his great Wichita Lineman and Galveston heyday. And while Jack White’s work with Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson should put Rubin a little to shame, he's also picking up on some of the American Recordings fairy dust.

Rubin rightly recognised that a stripped-down approach would not only produce intrigue with Cash, but that it’d also force him to sing more directly and plainly, allowing the genius of his voice to come through. But it’s not like Rubin was some kind of Midas figure with Cash. There’s an anecdote I touch upon in the book, where Cash is doing take after take of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love because Rubin thinks they could score a hit with it. The whole time, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cash’s backing band for the sessions, were fighting not to burst into laughter, even though they all idolised Cash. It was just so stupid, they had to laugh. And some of the stuff, especially in albums three and four, got similarly insipid. I’m actively embarrassed to listen to the covers of In My Life and Bridge Over Troubled Water,” bad enough songs in their own right, but it was especially dumb to have Cash sing them, as though his purpose were to provide funeral songs for the world’s most sentimental bikers or something.

I’m still not convinced Rubin really knew what he had with Cash. Neil Diamond is great and all, but in what universe other than Rubin’s are they comparable figures? But he did lead Cash to a better artistic place. And Rubin gives good copy, which is important, and he gives an entry point for magazine writers, so he helped give Cash a renewed sense of relevance and audience. And he believed in Cash, which encouraged the great man to take some risks that really paid off. In my view, the whole Cash and Rubin collaboration was worthwhile if it produced nothing else but the albums American Recordings, Unchained, A Hundred Highways and the songs Hurt, I See a Darkness and The Man Comes Around, the latter of which I think is Cash’s great triumph.

Did you ever get to see Johnny play live during this period? His fairly stripped-down Glastonbury performance was incredible but as you point out in the book the hokiness of the ‘family’ show didn’t always sit comfortable with the rawer, more violent image that American recordings conjured up.

I didn’t get to see the aged Cash perform. I saw him when I was a kid. As a side income, my parents sold t-shirts and did security at a lot of country concerts, so I got to see a lot of live music that way. After American Recordings, he was caught in a bind. It would’ve been best for his career and his artistry if he’d ruthlessly cut June and John Carter and the rest of the tribe out of the show. He could have done acoustic sets and then live electric performances backed by the Tennessee Three or some young rockabillies. But that would’ve been against his values. He had a legitimate connection to an older audience, and it would have compromised his integrity with them to have abandoned the tried-and-true approach he’d been using for decades. In order to shun the family show's Hee Haw vibe, he’d have to become someone other than Johnny Cash, which was something no one wanted to have happened.

In the acknowledgments you thank Leigh (who I presume is your wife) for helping you “cut down the references to Johnny Cash’s mythic genitalia”. Now’s your opportunity. Do you have any favourite anecdotes about Johnny’s johnson?

Oh, I have no real world anecdotes. It was just a sort of jokey literary motif I overdeveloped, to my wife's annoyance. If Cash were some kind of legendary cocksmith, that’s between him and June and the state of Tennessee.

Johnny got on MTV thanks to Kate Moss appearing in the video for Delia’s Gone. I knew it was a traditional song but didn’t know there had been an actual, historical Delia. Was that something you learnt while researching the book?

The historian Sean Wilentz has an essay in a book he co-edited with Greil Marcus in which he talked about the Delia history. He referred continually to the original research done by a man named John Garst. I found Garst’s contact information and asked him for a copy of his research, which he kindly provided. Garst had a treasure trove of material, but I didn’t think he nor Wilentz were really pushing that material far enough. It was great research, and it called for some literary ambition, not journalistic humility. I ended up spending the most time on the Delia section of the book, which was originally much longer (which is true of the book as a whole; I cut over 15,000 words from the first version). For a period of time, the Delia section was actually a series of discrete paragraphs rather than the multi-linear essay it turned into, a format I adapted from Norman O. Brown’s great Love’s Body. But it wasn’t the right format for this material.

So I kept rewriting and kept going back through Cash’s work as I did so. I’ve got over a thousand of his songs on my iTunes and I would write and rewrite and listen until I felt like I was getting into the skin of the Delia legend. Once I wrote that section, which I spent maybe six months on (I’m sure I wrote at least ten different versions), the rest of the book made itself legible to me.

The one song you’re really not keen on is the Kris Kristofferson cover Why Me Lord. Presumably this was one Johnny brought to to the table rather than Rick Rubin. Why don’t you like it?

As I say in the book, I find the salvation of Why Me Lord to be a shallow, solipsistic brand of salvation. Very modern, as if salvation were something to be purchased and consumed. A magic trick or something. Or a cologne: Johnny Cash’s Redemption. Aside from Why Me, the rest of the album has a very different feel, a great open-heartedness. To risk sounding like Greil Marcus’ drunken cousin, on most of American Recordings, self and God and country are so deeply bound together that they seem like three faces of the same being. But not on Why Me. On Why Me, the self reigns supreme. It is given the great gift of God's salvation and, now that it has it, the rest of the world itself can go to Hell. Kristofferson’s a bona fide genius, but that’s maybe his worst song. It’s his The Times They Are a-Changin.’

You make an interesting point in the book that on American Recordings Cash seemed to abandon one of the great themes of much of his of earlier work - social justice. Why do you think that was?

I’ll pin some of that on Rubin, who I still think had a shallow sense of Cash as just this menacing Man in Black figure. Cash and Rubin both, they fell too in love with the whole redemption bit, and started forgetting about vengeance, justice, humor, screwing. And I also think they were afraid that anything too protesty would make Cash sound like a 60s relic, as if social justice were a fad (this makes me think about seeing protesters dressed up in tie-dye shirts in order to march against the invasion of Iraq years ago).

After the first American Recordings, the number one order of business was the resurrection of Johnny Cash as Johnny Cash. But on the first album, the net was wider. The first album was concerned with history, which has always been a great subject for country musicians, maybe THE great subject of country music. Also: it’s really hard to write a great song with social justice as a theme. Cash had been lucky to have discovered the work of Peter LaFarge in the 60s, since The Ballad of Ira Hayes and As Long as the Grass Shall Grow are among the best social justice songs around. But it’s not impossible to write a good song along these lines. As I wrote in the book, I think Marty Stuart (with help from Cash’s son John Carter Cash) succeeded in writing the kind of American Indian themed album Cash promised but never delivered when Stuart wrote and recorded his Badlands album from a few years ago.

To my mind the American Recordings series got a bit out hand. I forked out for the outtakes box but I don’t even own the second posthumous album. What’s your take on the subsequent albums?

A Hundred Highways should have been the stopping point. That second posthumous album is pretty mild, at best. Who really wants to hear Cash cover a Sheryl Crow song, even if it does mention trains? I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a copy of the Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville on one of the suggested covers CDs Rubin sent periodically to Cash. The Rubin years are hit or miss, but the high points are undeniable. I think Unchained is a terrific album. I like half of Solitary Man a lot, and I adore the first two songs on The Man Comes Around.

There’s a playlist I’ve put together of the Cash-Rubin collaboration, and I listen to it more than just about anything, so I’d be dishonest if I completely crapped on the late run. That playlist goes:

1) The Man Comes Around, 2) God’s Gonna Cut You Down, 3) Spiritual, 4) Ain’t No Grave, 5) Thirteen, 6) Further on Up the Road, 7) Hurt, 8) I See a Darkness, 9) Rowboat, 10) Like the 309, 11) The Beast in Me, 12) Rusty Cage, 13) Down There By the Train, 14) The Mercy Seat, 15) Delia’s Gone, 16) Redemption, 17) Redemption Song, 18) Southern Accents, 19) On the Evening Train

I can listen to this playlist for days and days. So, I’m really glad these late albums exist, and that Cash had the chance to redefine and re-explore himself in his final decade. Sometimes I think of these late albums as a bit of a lost opportunity, but the opportunity itself was a bit of a miracle, so I should also be thankful that it even occurred.

A final, selfish, question. Now you’ve finished the book when can we expect more brilliant episodes of Tony Tost’s America?

That’s kind of you to say. My impetus for putting those episodes together sort of burnt out after I finished writing the book. The podcast came out of my research. In trying to get into Cash’s head, I listened to a lot of the stuff he grew up listening to and to the stuff that his peers were doing and to the stuff that he influenced. And I’d find weird things I wanted to share, tracks that suggested a landscape in which a Johnny Cash seemed inevitable.

At some point, I may try to pitch to a publisher a Thinking Person’s Guide to Country Music, where I tackle everything I find interesting about country music - haunting brother harmony combos like the Louvins and the Blue Sky Boys, for instance, or the beautifully florid and literate 70s recordings of Charlie Rich and Don Williams, or Toby Keith’s strange and hugely underrated career, or Natalie Maines’ unsurpassable singing - in an elevated literary mode, similar to what I attempted with American Recordings. If I ever do that, I’m sure I’ll start cranking out episodes again. Right now, though, I’m working on writing fictional, highly dramatic narratives, so all my obsessiveness is pointed in that direction.

Tony's book about American Recordings is out now. Buy it at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (US). Better still, see if it's in your local bookshop or ask them to order you copy.

Related Posts
Johnny Cash: Chicken in Black - just so you know why Johnny needed a credibility comeback
A Cup of Coffee with Johnny Cash - Cash hawks Folgers, as heard on Tony Tost's America

Related Links
Tony Tost's America - if you like Carnival Saloon, you'll love Tony's podcast
33 ⅓ books - official blog for the series


lugworm said...

Great post. Thank You.

mas raden said...

wow thats very good post. . . i like it. . .
thanks for sharing

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