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Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are still our greatest Storytellers

"I told Rick, 'That's not my song, I can't do that song,'" Cash recalled. "And he said, 'What if we got an arrangement you're comfortable with?' And I said, 'On that song, I don't think it's possible, but if you did get one I'm comfortable with, that's what it's all about. I'll try it.' So they worked and got an arrangement I was really comfortable with. I think today I enjoy performin' 'Rusty Cage' as much as anything on the show. I really do. I love it. I don't know--it's just got a good feel to it.

"If I hear something that's comfortable to me, I'll do it. I've got an open mind and an open heart for music. It's the closed minds in this business that limit the potential, and there's so much of that out here in Nashville. Minds are closed down to whatever's not gettin' on this gravy train and ridin' today. And I just hate that kind of thing. I just always have and always will. I've always been a Memphis rebel. I never did do it the way they do it down on Music Row."

Last year, Cash told daughter Rosanne in Interview magazine that working with Rubin recalled the "freedom" he experienced at Sun--a freedom he wasn't necessarily looking for, he said during our interview, but one he was frustrated he could never find. He insisted he likely will continue to record with Rubin and American Recordings "to the end." Before Cash fell ill, they had begun discussing the third album, one filled with gospel songs and spirituals. It would have been--and might still be--the only appropriate payback for a man who makes promises to God.

"I've got a producer and a record company who believe in me, and, more important, I believe in myself more than ever," Cash said. "There comes a time when nobody wants what you got so long you get to thinkin' nobody wants you at all. There was so much apathy on the part of my record company that I got that way, too--I got very apathetic about recording. I would wonder, 'Well, what's the point if I go and record an album and they press 500 copies and that's it?' I mean, I don't need any more lessons in futility. If I sell a lot of records or not, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the record company or Rick, because I'm doin' what I should be doin'--and what I feel right doin'.

"I wake up with a new song every day. The song comes through me from somewhere. I woke up yesterday singin', 'A penny a kiss/A penny a hug/Gonna save my pennies in a big brown jug'--a song from 1949. Just this mornin' it was 'Lucky Old Sun.' I mean, these songs keep comin' through me, recyclin' through my brain. There's no gettin' away from the music if I wanted to. It's there. It's part of me. I go to sleep with a song on my mind every night, and it might be a song I don't even especially like. I never thought about bein' without it. I couldn't imagine not havin' music. I can't imagine bein' alive and not havin' a song in my head."

And in the end, that's what makes Storytellers such a heartbreaking listen: Cash now exists as a phantom--he's still among us, just not visible to the naked eye. Since he fell ill, one of his best friends and oldest bandmates died, and Carl Perkins' passing hit him as hard as any debilitating illness. If nothing else, it reminds him--and us--that even rock and roll's most immortal figures must sometime leave this earth. So embrace the storytellers, and listen to their tales one more time knowing there are too few like them left.

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