American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways in my birthday binge at Bert's in Newark, DE, the dwindling days of the summer found me listening repeatedly to several CDs I'd culled from Johnny Cash's series of extraordinary discs, produced by Rick Rubin, from 1994 to 2006.
The sparseness of these recordings, captured with glowing fidelity to the quavers and slurs and spellbinding presence of Cash's voice, remake in a timeless mode every song presented. Old Top 40s hits like "If You Could Read My Mind" and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" achieve a degree of unaffected honesty that shows how shielded by commercial artifice most songs are. Songs of faith like "Spiritual" and "Unchained" and "Help Me" convince us that Cash's spirit was able to touch deep places of doubt and affirmation that most singers couldn't possibly conceive of; even the Gospel tradition, with its choruses and histrionic singers soaring in rapturous testimony, could learn from the simplicity of Cash's humble, direct and deliberate readings. Songs so familiar one forgets one ever heard all the words -- like "Danny Boy" and "Streets of Laredo" -- are interpreted by Cash as if newly formed, with no history of schmaltzy sentimental versions to distract from the basic emotions of loss the songs evoke.
Then there are the songs from rock artists -- Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down" and "Southern Accents," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and "Pocahontas," Nick Cave's "Mercy Seat," Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," Sting's "I Hung My Head" -- that Cash simply takes away from the original artists, making them at once songs of our common folk heritage and his own personal statements, imbued with the dignity and grandeur and unstinting passion of Johnny Cash in his 60s and 70s. Even the corn-pone aspects of Cash's persona are well-represented and, in songs like "Country Trash" and "Nobody," representative of Cash's enduring maverick status as a simple person celebrating simple joys while knowing full well the complex, difficult path of fame and failure.
Bob Dylan was recently quoted as saying that recordings in the last 20 years (the digital age, essentially) simply sound bad -- an estimation of analog recording and vinyl pressings as superior to the flattened and somewhat processed sound our ears have become accustomed to. However true that may be in the main, Rubin's recordings of Johnny Cash are a victory over so much that is misguided in the production of records. Dylan, who at various times has eschewed all studio gimmickry and at other times -- most notably in Empire Burlesque -- fallen victim to it, wasn't able to achieve in his stripped-down renderings of standards in the early '90s anything nearly as powerful as what Cash achieved with Rubin.