“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”–Acts 2:17, King James Version
Johnny Cash dreamed a dream. He dreamed he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II, who looked at him and said, “Johnny Cash, you’re a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” When Cash woke up, he started thumbing through his Bible, landing on the book of Job, in which God addresses Job from out of a whirlwind. Years later, the thoughts inspired by this dream coalesced into a song, “The Man Comes Around,” released by Cash in 2002 at age 70, on his fourth album for American Recordings.
The song begins with Cash speaking Revelation’s warning of the Antichrist on a white horse, an acoustic guitar chunks its way in, then Cash, his baritone with an eerie edge, sings his vision of the Apocalypse, offering a choice between the communion cup of salvation or a nameless grave in the potter’s field. By the time the song ends, and whether you believe it or not, you’re stone sure that Cash believes his version of events to come. The song is both thrilling and sobering, and it–along with the rest of Cash’s work in the illness-plagued last decade of his life–is a testament to the creative will of a tenacious artist.
To be fair, the old man’s dream of being a relevant contemporary voice–the truest definition of a prophet–was encouraged by a young man’s vision. Rick Rubin, co-founder of the seminal rap label, Def Jam–and producer of a diverse range of artists like the Beastie Boys, Slayer, and Tom Petty–admired Cash, but felt he needed a little nudge out of the commercial and creative rut he had been in throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Rubin approached Cash and pitched to him the idea of a solo acoustic album. The result was 1994’s American Recordings, followed by three more Rubin-produced Cash efforts: Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000), and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002).
Unearthed, the extraordinary 79-song, five-CD boxed set, charts the unexpectedly fruitful Cash-Rubin partnership with three discs of mostly unreleased outtakes from their sessions, an unreleased gospel album entitled “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” and one disc of “best of” material from the four previous albums.
Mixing a smattering of Cash originals with traditional and cover material from the genres of country, gospel, pop, rock, metal, and even reggae, Unearthed resolves any doubt that Cash stands alongside Sinatra, Elvis, and Dylan as a supreme interpreter of American song.
Who else could turn in both a snarling, Hendrix-like version of Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” and a come-to-Jesus tearjerker like “Softly and Tenderly” without sounding ridiculous?
There are revelatory moments throughout Unearthed, but an inordinate amount come on its second disc, entitled “Trouble in Mind.” Backed variously by guitarist Smokey Hormel and by members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Red Devils, Cash is loose and strong. He saunters through rockabilly classics like “Down the Line,” “Everybody’s Tryin’ to be My Baby,” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” He claims for himself the Neil Young classics “Pocahontas” and “Heart of Gold.” He crows and brags on Jimmie Rodgers’s “T for Texas”
Disc two also contains the set’s most beautiful track, a duet with wife June Carter Cash called “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.” With June’s voice lilting above the chorus like the angel that she was, Johnny matter-of-factly tells of their love. Knowing that that love delivered Cash from his near-deadly drug addiction and sustained him for the rest of his life makes the track especially poignant.
Always knowing just when to do something and when to do nothing, Rubin’s production is as tasteful as Cash’s singing. A sizeable chunk of Unearthed, including most of the gospel material, is Cash alone–and the full-band arrangements are imaginative without being kitschy. They also forced Cash to stretch his emotional limits, with the grungy rumble on Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and the sincere sentiment of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” lying far beyond his customary range of feeling. Since Cash credits his early exposure to Pentecostal church singing–the most fervent and exciting brand of white gospel–with steering him toward music, it’s no surprise that he had little trouble grasping what Rubin wanted him to reach.
Here’s hoping that Cash’s strange but strong faith wasn’t held in vain, and that he has been, literally, unearthed–loosed from the bonds of humanity that weighed so heavily on him at times and that drove him to an expansive artistic search for emotional truth.
–Aaron Harris writes for Country Music today.