Back in black

Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are still our greatest Storytellers

Somewhere along the way, Cash--like Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and so many other country greats--slipped from superstar status to become a cult icon. He and Nelson were no longer welcome on the labels on which they became legends: Both have long since been exiled from Columbia Records--the very label that is releasing Storytellers. They were banished: Cash to Rick Rubin's American Recordings, which has since been bought by Sony Music, and Nelson to Island Records, which released the moving Spirit in 1996 without a hint of publicity. Nelson was even forced to hawk records on television (where he sold a rarities boxed set a few years ago) and the Internet (Music Boulevard recently sold an "exclusive" disc filled with giddy one-take toss-offs featuring Nelson and his old pals known as the Offenders).

Both men are ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, exiles in their homeland. George Jones recently took out his own ad in Billboard for the single "Wild Irish Rose" that featured basketballs, baseballs, footballs, and so on, accompanied by the words, "If radio had any of these, they'd play this record." Never mind that they are shoved out of the way for models in Stetsons; they are thrown away and replaced by mere children now, pale and unformed imitations of legends that Cash and Nelson knew and performed alongside. They're turned into oldies acts even after proving they're capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite, Storyteller being only the most recent example.

For most people, Cash simply disappeared during the 1980s. His career was sucked into a black hole known as Mercury/Polygram, where Cash was signed in 1986 after his relationship with Columbia Records had run its 27-year course. Though he released some of the finest records of his career during his stint on the label, including Water from the Wells of Home (which featured the likes of Paul McCartney, daughter Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, and the Everly Brothers) and Mystery of Life (which contained a classic performance of "Wanted Man"), Cash had begun to feel like an old man trapped inside history books. He was the outlaw who couldn't get arrested.

"I was at a session in downtown Nashville one day, and somebody came in from Randy Travis' record company," Cash recalled when I spoke to him last summer, just a few months before he fell ill. "I said, 'What's goin' on over there?' and he said, 'Aw, we're just lookin' for another Randy Travis.' I said, 'What's wrong with the one you got? You got a good one, you oughta keep him and let people know about him.' I heard demographics so much I wanted to vomit. I stopped trying to get Nashville to do anything for me recordwise.

"But I never think about radio. I never wonder if they're playing my records. It's very liberating. When I release a record, I don't run and buy Billboard magazine. Never did, really. My people would always lay it on my desk in front of me or comment on it, and they'd show it to me, but I don't think I ever bought a copy of Billboard magazine. I really don't think I have. That's never really been where it's at."

In retrospect, Cash's signing to American Recordings in 1994 was a stroke not of desperation but of cold-blooded genius. Rubin was Cash's kind of guy--someone who treated Cash not as a waxwork legend but as a viable performer whose best years were still in front of him. Rubin was probably smart enough to know he wouldn't make much money with Cash, but he was also sharp enough to know he'd make a great record with the Man in Black. Look--how the hell could anyone go wrong by giving Cash a guitar and hitting the record button on the tape machine?

American Recordings, released four years ago, would prove to be perhaps Cash's oddest--and, in some twisted way, most fulfilling--record from start to finish. Even its cover seemed to warn of what was inside: With a wide-open sky behind him and two hellhounds by his side, Cash stands cloaked in nightmare black. He props his guitar case in front of him, and he looks straight at--straight through--the camera. It's as though he's daring you to listen--the unholy assortment of murder ballads and religious hymns and war stories, music that drips with blood.

Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and he sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and others--not to mention a few of his older, lesser-known songs--and wrings the life (and death) from them. Contained within is a stark, desolate portrait of a man (or men, depending upon whether you consider this a protracted monologue or an album of vignettes) who struggles with the demons inside his soul until he finally gives up and gives in. And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, Cash sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell: "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

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