By the year 2000 and the third album in the American series, Johnny Cash had reestablished himself as one of the greatest singers, not just in country music, but in all music. Producer, Rick Rubin, began working with him several years before and allowed Johnny Cash do what he did best in the studio…be JOHNNY CASH!
Cash began working with Rick Rubin in 1994. Rubin was the founder of Def Jam Records, and was responsible for producing seminal recordings by Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys. It must have taken quite a leap of faith for Johnny Cash to, not only work with Rick Rubin who was much younger than him, but to put his career in hia hands.
When they first began working together, Cash’s career was pretty much over. He had recorded several ho-hum records for Mercury Records during the mid-to-late 1980s that were nothing special, and even resorted to re-recording some of his older hits for the label. I caught Cash in concert in a small New York City bar back in 1986 when he was touring behind the album Water From The Wells Of Home. His career was so far off the mark, that the place was not even half full, although I must say that he was terrific. The performance was marred by his proclivity to allow his son and wife to take precious concert time away from the main attraction, in order for them to perform their own second-rate material.
Rubin’s whole modus operandi with Cash was to make bare guitar and voice recordings that would highlight what a great interpreter of material he was. In doing so, Rubin sent Cash tapes of songs he liked, exposing him to material he had never heard by the likes of Tom Petty, Beck, Soundgarden, U2 and Nick Cave, who wrote today’s Song Of The Day.
For American III: Solitary Man, Rubin assembled an all-star list of backing musicians including Norman Blake, Mike Campbell, Randy Scruggs and Marty Stuart on guitar, Tom Petty, Merle Haggard and Shreyl Crow on backing vocals and Bentmont Tench on organ. “The Mercy Seat” is probably Cash’s most harrowing recording, even more so than Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ original from their 1988 album Tender Prey.
Of the five American Recordings albums, not to mention the five CD Cash Unearthed box set with more Rubin/Cash collaborations, the American III: Solitary Man album is one of the most enjoyable on every level mainly because of its superb choice of cover songs by Tom Petty (“I Won’t Back Down”), Neil Diamond (“Solitary Man”) and U2 (“One”). Together, Cash and Rubin formulated a record that kept Johnny Cash not only relevant with the hip cognoscenti, but also true to himself as a recording artist.
And as for what Nick Cave thought about Cash’s cover, his pride oozes out of every word in the following quote… “It doesn’t matter what anyone says, Johnny Cash recorded my song.”