Back in black

Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are still our greatest Storytellers

The record begins with the familiar, famous introduction: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he rumbles, his voice as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. He tries to add something to the trademark, but the crowd, clapping and cheering the presence of myth, doesn't let him. Then there's another man's voice, which is as nasal and affable as Cash's is fierce and penetrating: "Hi, I'm Willie Nelson." More cheers, as though the man wearing pigtails and pot-reek could be anyone else.

"So what do you want to do first?" Willie asks Johnny, then immediately leaps into "Ghost Riders in the Sky"--a song about demons "with hooves made of steel" and "horns black and shiny"; it might as well be their theme song. Their acoustic guitars tangle like hundred-year-old vines in a garden, while their voices--neither pretty, both so beautiful--clash and waltz together into the darkness.

And so begins Storytellers, an album of material Cash and Nelson recorded last year for VH1's series featuring musicians and their guitars and their tall tales of inspiration and explanation. For 51 minutes and 42 seconds, the two old friends share a stage, trade war stories, exchange a few jokes as well-worn as Nelson's guitar, and join each other on a trip down amnesia lane. They know each other's songs as though they were their own: While one man plays lead guitar and sings the songs he crafted from gold and granite (Nelson with "Crazy" or "Night Life"; Cash with "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Drive On"), the other keeps pace and provides the soft rhythm. They're old sparring partners who know each other's next move three moves in advance; they're Highwaymen from way back who know every back road--there are no surprises left around each bend, only revelations.

In the grand scheme of things, the music industry being what it is and isn't, Storytellers will be regarded as a minor release; it is, after all, one more disc that offers one more retelling of songs so familiar they're part of the common language--who among us doesn't know every chord change in "On the Road Again?" It's the soundtrack to a televised special that aired on cable, and besides, audiences long ago stopped buying Cash and Nelson records; they've abandoned the outlaw heroes for the pretty-boy and cover-girl zeroes who come and go quicker than Johnny Holmes.

But the cynic who discounts Storytellers for those reasons misses out on one of the year's finest records, a soundtrack that needs no visuals to make its point. If there's anything in this world better than Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash whining and moaning over nothing but acoustic guitars and the in-between silences, then I have yet to find it. Nelson plays like a honky-tonk Django Reinhardt, his picking so precise and angular; he finds notes most musicians don't even know exist. Listen to his "Funny How Times Slips Away" on Storytellers--the song has never sounded so solemn and intimate. And Cash's voice, even at the age of 65, lands a more solid punch than a room full of studio musicians shadow-boxing behind him, even when he seems to gasp for air.

If for no other reason than this, Storytellers should be cherished: It will be Johnny Cash's last album of "new" material for a while. In October 1997, during a book tour promoting his self-titled autobiography, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease; the tour was promptly canceled. A few weeks later, he contracted pneumonia--only to have doctors inform him that what they thought was Parkinson's was, in reality, something called Shy-Drager's Syndrome, which attacks and often kills the nervous system. (Though the National Enquirer did report last week that Cash, recovering in Jamaica, recently performed two songs for a crowd of VIPs.)

At 66, he's a man whose best work is still in front of him, but just out of reach: Only weeks ago, he was awarded with a Grammy for his 1996 album Unchained, the second of his acoustic showdowns with producer Rick Rubin, a man better known for turning the Red Hot Chili Peppers into wan-hit wonders. To celebrate the occasion, Rubin took out an ad in Billboard magazine thanking the academy for this award: "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support."

The text was accompanied by a full-page photo of Cash taken in 1970 during a performance at San Quentin prison in California: He is scowling in the old photo, shooting his middle finger at the camera as though it's a loaded weapon. The snapshot is vintage, but the sentiment is raw: Johnny Cash says, Fuck you.

Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but--merely another country-music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue," and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks--the Six Flags and Billy Bob's of this world. And, sure enough, he'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and Country.

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.

Cash said last year there were 70 songs recorded for American Recordings, 14 of which turn up on the highly sought-after American Outtakes bootleg CD that's every bit as good as the original--perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's L.A. living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease ("Friends in California" especially) than its "predecessor": Cash's voice is piercing and doomsaying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable are Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime," one of the only songs from the recording session to feature a guest musician (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar), and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash said. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me.

"But the thing about American Recordings was that I didn't want it to sound and feel like a performance. I wanted it to be that I had my guitar in my hand and I was singin' to you and you alone. Or singin' to myself. They had to have that feeling before we would put it on the list, and they had to be a good song--I don't know if there are any great songs on that album. There's a lot of good songs that have come along, but not many great songs. But we had to believe they were all good songs we picked, and some songs are better than others. Some old songs are as good as they ever were, but some aren't as good as they used to be when it comes to recordin' them."

If 1996's Unchained--featuring no less than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood--seemed somehow less satisfying than Cash's American debut, it was because American Recordings was the record Cash had always wanted to make. He had long dreamed of doing the solo acoustic album ("called Late and Alone," Cash said in 1997) and was told by Columbia and Mercury execs he couldn't, so American Recordings reverberated with the echoes of passion and perfection. Unchained was only bound to pale in comparison because it was more like any other record, less like a Personal Statement.

Unchained did have its brilliant moments, though: A cynic might dismiss his cover of Beck's "Rowboat" as cheap gimmickry, but Cash somehow found a way to make it his own--to turn Beck's ironic throwaway into a sad folk hymn, twisting the young man's words into his own woeful poem ("My body's out of tune/With the burnin' waves"). "'Rowboat' was one of those things that feel pretty natural," Cash says. "It sounds like something I might have written in the '60s, when I was goin' through my self-induced [drugs and alcohol] hell."

And his versions of "Country Boy" and "Mean Eyed Cat" (which Cash first recorded in 1955 for Sam Phillips) recall that young Arkansas-born rockabilly rebel who stepped into Sun Studios in the mid-1950s; indeed, his voice sounds somehow more alive on those two songs than it has in years--higher, livelier, like a man sneaking up on the beginning instead of crawling toward the end. Even his take on Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" doesn't sound inappropriate--it simply, somehow, just doesn't sound as dangerous as "Country Boy." Cash, after all, has lived The Life; Soundgarden's Chris Cornell probably read about it.

Cash was skeptical of the whole affair from the very beginning--worried Petty and the band would use the opportunity of backing Cash to shine, nervous about whether the Heartbreakers would be able to interpret his vision for Unchained.

"For this record, it was about recording with some musicians I was really comfortable with and getting the whole music flow," Cash said. "When we were recording 'The One Rose,' everybody had the same goal in mind; everybody was in one accord emotionally, spiritually, and every other way. It was like this whole song, from all the instruments, came through me. It's like I took everything they were giving me and putting it through my soul and out my mouth. That's the way these songs had to work. They had to feel like they could be a part of me. Like 'Folsom Prison Blues' is a part of me. There's no separating me from that song. Well, I had to feel that these songs on this album were that way--that they were that good."

To that end, Cash was unsure whether Rick Rubin would find an arrangement of "Rusty Cage" that sounded suitable. Indeed, when Rubin first played him the Soundgarden original, Cash scoffed at the idea--it was no more his song than "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Hava Nagila."

"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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