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The Beast in Me: Johnny Cash and the American Recordings

Many US musicians are very popular in Germany and have a significant pop-cultural influence. Don Stadler, is an American in London, and wrote this guest blogpost about Johnny Cash:

Johnny Cash Early this spring I saw 'Walk the Line' a so-called 'biopic' about the lives of Johnny and June Carter Cash, a powerful film about the first 15 years of Johnny Cash's career. I had been a Cash fan back in the late 60's when I was a boy but had lost track of him since then. Nevertheless I found it powerful and touching. It was also a lie – in a way. The film itself told few lies – but left out the ending.

'Walk the Line' ends on a high note. Cash has defeated an amphetamine drug habit, married the girl (June Carter) and recorded a live album at the California State Prison at Folsom which briefly made him the top-selling recording artist in the United States.
The life of Johnny Cash
(Wikipedia on Cash) is life-long, complex, and inspiring. Cash died in 2003 but only after recording a cycle of albums which are a shining triumph of American arts – the "American Recordings" series, now on number five – and perhaps to be as many as seven.
Cash had a long, influential, and successful career of almost 50 years. Cash began as part of the stable of artists at Sun Records in Memphis, in many ways the cradle of both Rock n' Roll and a cradle of country music. Cash's fellow Sun Records alumni include Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire), Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes), and Roy Orbison.
Later on Cash was a major influence on Bob Dylan (and conversely) and through Dylan an influence on a  wide range of important musicians and bands, most recently U2. But the most important work Cash did was his final group of albums recorded during the 90's, and this is where I will begin.

Cash was very successful through the 1970's. He had a successful TV show for three years and his recorded music sold very well. During the 80's his recording career declined but he and June Carter remained very successful touring artists. Cash's recording contract was finally dropped in 1993 by Mercury Records.

Enter Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin was a successful young producer of rap records and other modern age rock (Rubin produces The Red Hot Chili Peppers among others). In 1993 he was looking to do something different and he hit on the idea of producing an album by a great artist who had lost his way. So he approached Johnny Cash and they found that they had something of a shared vision. Cash had wished to do an album of folk songs but his record labels had prevented it. Rubin and Cash sat together in the living room of Rubin's house and Cash played songs with only his acoustic guitar for backup. The best of these songs, plus two from a live performance Rubin arranged at a Hollywood club owned by Johnny Depp, formed the original American Recordings album, the first of five so far.

Cash and the American Recordings I-III series.
Wikipedia on American Recordings:
There are seven released albums in the American Recordings series thus far, five by Cash alone and a live album recorded by  Cash and Willie Nelson. The last album is a boxed collection named 'Unearthed' with several CD's of otherwise unrealeased songs from the raw sessions. I own the first three Cash albums and the live album and will likely buy them all.
The basis of these albums is a stripped down Johnny Cash. The first album is Cash and his guitar, but in the subsequent albums (Unchained, Solitary Man) Rubin adds a few instruments. The focus is always on Cash's voice and message. Cash sang songs delivering messages. He was very much a Christian and an extremely fallible man, an old man often in pain.
I would not categorize this as Christian music – I think it delivers a universal message from a man facing death.


The most powerful song from Album I is "The Beast in Me", written for Cash (and about him) by Nick Lowry:
The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me
Other extremely powerful songs from this album are 'Bird on a Wire', 'Delia's Gone', 'Drive On', 'Down There by the Train', and 'The Man Who Couldn't Cry'.

This is an album about sin and sinners and perhaps those sinned against. 'Delia' is about a man who killed his fiancé, 'Drive On' about the mental scars from Vietnam, and 'Down there by the Train' is about forgiveness and how sinners can be forgiven.
I'm going to leave Cash's politics for a later blog post. He had them! Cash believed in mercy. He thought prison terms should be short and jails humane. Above all he opposed the death penalty.

Amazon United States:

Amazon Deutschland:


Atlantic Review on : Johnny Cash's Birthday

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Johnny Cash would have turned 75 yesterday. The German paper Die Welt writes about the rapidly increasing admiration for this conservative, deeply religious musician in Germany and recommends a new CD and DVD (HT: Marian). Don Stadler, an American in Lond


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GM Roper on :

I don't know if this was posted by Joerg or one of the other fine writers at Atlantic Review. I do know that I have been a Johnny Cash fan since the early 60's with his hit single "Ring of Fire." Cash was an American Original, beset by demons, armed with a faith in himself and later in God and imbued with a sense of music often approached by others but seldom attained. Cash is missed by all that loved his music. Great post!

JW-Atlantic Review on :

I am glad you like it. Don Stadler, one of our most loyal commentators, wrote this guest blog post.

Clarsonimus on :

I've got three words to say about Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire.

Don Stadler on :

Ring of Fire was a wonderful song written by Cash's wife and sister and law but what made it go was the mariachi's and the arrangement Cash added. In the wake of Paul Simon things like this have become commonplace but they weren't during the early 60's! 'Folsom Prison Blues' was another high point from Cash's early career and one of my three favorite Cash songs overall. Cash was opposed to capital punishment and long prison sentences, but his opposition wasn't based on ignorance. He sings 'I shot a man in Reno. Just to watch him die...'. I think his opinions were rooted in his Christianity. Jesus tells us to visit the prisoners - and Cash did so. Cash wasn't arguing for judges to let off obviously guilty prisoners as most liberals did during the 60s and 70s. No, Cash argued for mercy.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"This poignant performance of Nine Inch Nail’s, “Hurt” is almost haunting, as it was recorded just prior to Cash’s untimely death. Whether ... all » or not a Johnny Cash fan, this performance is powerful and deep with emotion": [url][/url]

Don S on :

Wonderful song, Joerg. But the song which which seems most symbolic of Cash's 'American Recordings' era is his cover of Soundgarden's [url=]Rusty Cage[/url] I think 'Rusty Cage' is one of the three most powerful songs Cash ever performed (along with 'Folsom Prison Blues and Nick Cave's [url=]Mercy Seat[/url]). I couldn't find a good video of Folsom Prison Blues on YouTube unfortunately. The best version is from the live album recorded at Folsom Prison itself....

Fast Gonzo on :

Hello there, I see there are some Johnny Cash fans here. Well, my first Johnny Cash album was a wedding gift from the drummer of my band and I promptly fell in love with Johnny Cash's music.

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