Monday, May 16, 2011

The Resurrection of the Man in Black Chronicled

The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings
by Graeme Thomson
2011 - London:Jawbone Press (254 pages)

While not a full biography, Graeme Thomson’s “The
Resurrection of Johnny Cash” is a remarkably thorough examination of the revival of Johnny Cash’s musical and career fortunes in the last years of his life. Cash of course emerged with Sun Records in the mid-fifties and then had a lengthy career on Columbia Records which included some major recordings, both thematic albums and “Live at Folsom Prison.” The Man in Black also had a weekly television show where he had an intriguing mix of performers from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan.

But as the 1980s came, and shifting personnel at Columbia as well as shifting musical trends and tastes, Cash found himself without a record contract as sales on his recordings dropped to the tens of thousands, well below what was required by the bean counters that were running the major labels. And as a concert act, he was increasingly a country oldies act, playing to older crowds that might flock to the Cash Theater in Branson, Missouri, or county and state fairs. And lets not talk about country radio, to which a new Cash release was no longer a must play. At the same time, Cash was having other personal battles including health issues and ongoing battles with addiction and a career that seemed directionless.

Thomson traces how the what superficially would seem to be the odd linkage between Cash and Rick Rubin, the head of Def Jam and Def American Records and known as the producer of hip hop and metal records. But it was a partnership that enabled Cash to return to prominence with nothing more simple than having him sing some songs accompanied solely by his own guitar. This simple idea recognized that Cash’s strength was his personality as a performer, undiluted by lavish accompaniments and production. This was evident with his Sun Records and the best of his Columbia recordings. His music had an integrity that resonated with listeners that transcended fans of country music that had been diluted. Many high moments and who can ever forget, having seen, the video for “Hurt.”

Interviews with countless interviews including Rosanne Cash, Nick Lowe, Rodney Crowell, Will Oldham, ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, Adam Clayton of U2, Bruce Lundvall and others helps Thomson put together the story, taking us from the depths, to a show at the Viper Room in Hollywood, shortly after completing the “American Recordings,” and to an unforgettable set in Glastonbury in 1994. The recordings with what seemed as the time, unusual choices of material, are detailed as well as his health struggles that he fought through the final recordings with Rubin which includes a discussion of the production of Cash’s posthumous recordings and how they were compiled.

Thomson is to be thanked for this terrific chronicle of Johnny Cash’s last years. It is an excellent biography that is thoroughly researched, well written, handsomely published and certainly appeal to fans of Cash as well as contemporary popular music.

I received a review copy from a publicist.

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