Album: American Recordings
Producer: Rick Rubin
“Rick is going to sign Johnny Cash.”
That was the word around the Def American Recordings offices in the waning days of 1992. It seemed, at first, to be another Rick vanity signing. We were releasing so many of his passion projects back then, like the Flipper album, records that seemed to take up a lot of creative oxygen but yielded little in the way of critical or commercial impact. Johnny Cash, like Roy Orbison, had long since washed out. The country music industry had basically left him for dead, assigning him to the antique shelf and writing him off as irrelevant. I think even John was mystified about what this hot, 20-something record producer wanted with him.
Rick, as usual, saw that things were not what they seemed.
A guitar strummed and we heard a voice, as familiar as that of our own father, sing: 'Delia/Oh, Delia/Delia all my life/If I hadn'ta shot poor Delia/I'da had her for my wife…' We knew Cash was gangster, but gott-dayum!
Rick brought in two Alesis “ADAT” machines (then the state-of-the-art for home recording, which allowed multitracking onto video cassettes), and converted his placid living room above Sunset Boulevard into a placid recording studio. Johnny Cash would come to the house, take out his guitar, and Rick would roll tape.
Over the course of a few months, Rick quietly encouraged Johnny Cash to play, and write, and trust the simplicity of the arrangements. He exorcised Cash's self-doubt and evoked a kind of creativity that the artist himself hadn't seen in decades.
But the recording process comprised only half of Rubin's cunning—the other was Rick's realization that Cash was no longer a country artist. He was now a folk musician who could be marketed as a core artist in the burgeoning genre of “Americana,” supported by the growth of “triple A” radio: Adult Album Alternative.
Thus, the rebirth of Johnny Cash was as much a marketing play as it was a musical one. And Cash's album would be the eponymous, flagship release of Rubin's rechristened record label, American Recordings.
As if that wasn't statement enough, the first bit of music we heard from this album made everything make perfect sense. A guitar strummed and we heard a voice, as familiar as that of our own father, sing: “Delia/Oh, Delia/Delia all my life/If I hadn'ta shot poor Delia/I'da had her for my wife…”
Wasn't that Rick? The toeing of the lyrical line at the fringes of violence and misogyny? The mix of heaven and hell, high and low? Wasn't it The Beasties, Dice, Public Enemy, and Slayer rolled into one? My God, we knew Cash was gangster, but gott-dayum! And who played Delia in the video? Kate Moss.
The whole project was brilliant. It was meaningful. It was fun. And it won a Grammy.