Q&A: Rick Rubin on Johnny Cash

Originally published February 22, 2010

Producer Rick Rubin is responsible for some unique musical moments – from teaming up Run-DMC and Aerosmith on Walk This Way, to producing records for Red Hot Chili Peppers and working with Russell Simmons to bring acts like Public Enemy and Beastie Boys to the mainstream but one of his greatest musical achievements to date has to be his work with Johnny Cash.

Rubin and Cash started collaborating in 1994, and the record that came of that, American Recordings, helped revitalize Cash’s career, and introduce him to the MTV audience. The pair went on to record several other albums, including 2003’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which featured a cover of Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt. The album won several awards and was Cash’s first album to go gold in three decades. In May 2003, just before Cash’s death, the pair recorded more material, and the sixth and final record in the American series, Ain’t No Grave, was released Tuesday, Feb. 26, just a few days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday.

I exchanged a few e-mails with Rick Rubin to discuss The Man in Black, Ain’t No Grave, and the American series:

Q: How did you meet Johnny Cash, and why did you decide to work with him?
A: I had a new label with all young artists and thought it would be fun to sign an elder statesman who wasn’t working up to his potential for one reason or another, and Johnny was the first person who came to mind. I went to see him performing at a dinner theatre in Orange County (in Southern California) and met him backstage afterwards.

Q: How would you describe your working and personal relationship with him over the six albums?
A: We became close friends, and I felt very privileged to spend so much time in his company.

Q: There are clear themes to this album, Ain’t No Grave. How much material did you have to draw from?
A: To me, (the themes on) this album are more of rebirth, letting go of the past, and new beginnings, hence the photo on the album cover. We recorded in the neighbourhood of 60 songs since American IV.

Q: Were all the arrangements and production done before Johnny died? Or did he record his parts and they were put in a vault?
A: He recorded his parts first and the production wasn’t developed until much later. This was not unusual, as we worked on the previous couple of albums this way when he was still with us.

Q: What’s your favourite Johnny Cash song of all time?
A: I like lots of them. First one that comes to mind is Big River.


And here is my review of Ain’t No Grave:

The posthumous album release can be a tricky thing: It usually trudges the utter depths of material, often unreleased for a reason, or unfinished, and can, at its worst, stain a legacy. Thankfully, this is not the case with Johnny Cash, and his American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the second and final album released after the singer’s death in 2003. Mined from his final sessions with producer Rick Rubin, after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, the American Recordings series – and Cash recording career – concludes with the Man in Black squaring up against his final opponent: death.

The title track opens the album, and is a master stroke: An ode to resurrection, Cash hears the trumpets and, with his well-worn basso profundo, calls on Gabriel and Christ himself, against a forward marching percussion stomp and clanging of chains, which, one might conclude, are soon to be broken.

Across the album, Cash sings as a man at his end, at peace with his Maker, and, notably, unafraid of what is next. Among the highlights is Cash’s cover of Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes’ A Satisfied Mind. Cash’s vocals are his greatest instrument, and Rubin wisely lets Cash’s singing reign over quiet acoustic guitar picking.

Even on an album like this – a funereal farewell collection – Cash’s sense of humour still comes through. The closing track may be the best example: a winking cover of Princess Lili’uokalani’s 1847 Aloha He (which translates as Farewell to Thee). With the lines, “A fond embrace a ho’i a’e au/ Until we meet again,” Cash sings his way into the setting sun, a sublime moment of light to sign off on a fully lived, fully documented, life.

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