Johnny Cash rides a new train of popularity

Pop Music

March 03, 2002|By Anthony DeCurtis | Anthony DeCurtis,New York Times News Service

On the cover of his album Ragged Old Flag, Johnny Cash stands resolute, staring directly at the viewer and pointing to an American flag that is torn and tattered but still flying. His face looks as if it could grace Mount Rushmore. Like the flag behind him, it's weathered and battle-worn, but nonetheless defiant. "She's been through the fire before," Cash intones on the album's title track, alluding to the flag and the country it represents, "and I believe she can take a whole lot more."

When Ragged Old Flag was first released in 1974, Cash intended the flag's scars to symbolize the shocks of American history, from the Revolutionary War to more contemporary upheavals like the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. When the album was reissued on Dec. 11, three months to the day after the terrorist attacks, it took on an unmistakable new meaning.

What better artist to summon all that is worthwhile in the American spirit than the redoubtable Cash? Since 1997, he has struggled with autonomic neuropathy, a severe neurological disorder that has brought him close to death. For that reason, Cash was not feeling strong enough to participate in the various music-industry events that were organized immediately after Sept. 11. But with the rerelease of Ragged Old Flag, along with his 1972 concept album, America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song, Cash made an eloquent statement of his own.

"Sept. 11 broke my heart," Cash said by telephone from Jamaica, where he can often be found when he is not at his home outside Nashville. "I watched it on television, and I guess I wanted to kill somebody myself. I do love this country, and I saw somebody take a really good shot at it. It was a striking blow at our morale. But I've recovered from that, just as this country is recovering. I believe this country will prevail."

Several albums to be reissued

Interest in Cash has intensified at a time when his music -- with its patriotic themes and dark undercurrents, its independent-mindedness and its spiritual reach -- seems eminently suited to the cultural mood of the country. Cash turned 70 on Tuesday, and to commemorate that event, Columbia / Legacy has begun an extensive reissue campaign that draws on the dozens of albums Cash recorded for Columbia between 1958 and 1993.

This month saw the release of The Essential Johnny Cash, a superb two-disc collection that also includes eight of the legendary tracks (like "I Walk the Line" and "Big River") Cash recorded between 1955 and 1958 for the influential Sun label, where Elvis Presley also established his career.

Remastered versions (with additional, contemporaneous tracks) of five of Cash's albums that have been out of print for years also will be issued on March 19: The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958), Hymns by Johnny Cash (1959), Ride This Train (1960), Orange Blossom Special (1965) and Carryin' On With Johnny Cash and June Carter (1967). Five more of Cash's albums will be reissued in July.

In 2000, Cash released a thematically organized three-disc compilation called Love God Murder, with each disc addressing one of the primary subjects that has preoccupied him throughout his life. He sees little difference among the three concerns. "My faith in God has always been a solid rock that I have stood on," Cash said. "I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess I even took advantage of that fact."

"Roy Orbison wrote a song called 'My Best Friend,' and there's a line in there that says, 'A diamond is a diamond / And a stone is a stone / But man is part good / And part bad.' I've always believed that the good will ultimately prevail, but there's a bad side of us that we have to keep warring against. I know I do."

New songs, familiar pain

Cash and producer Rick Rubin are currently collaborating on their fourth album together, which they plan to release later this year. At 70, Cash sees no reason to cease being adventurous or to be content with a tasteful celebration of the work he has already done.

"When I signed with Rick's label about 10 years ago," Cash recalled, "I asked him what he would do with me that nobody else had done. He said, 'I would like for you to sit in front of a microphone with your guitar and sing every song you want to record.' I said: 'Whoa, that's a tall order. There are lots of songs over the years that I've wanted to do.' He said, 'Well, those are the ones that I want to hear.' "The songs [for the next album] are coming from every direction," Cash said. "I've written two or three new ones, and I recorded a Sting song called 'I Hung My Head.' I've recorded a Marty Robbins song called 'Big Iron.' I'm recording 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' that Roberta Flack song. And I'm recording 'Hurt' by Nine Inch Nails.

"When I heard that song, I thought, 'That sounds like something I could have written in the '60s,' " he said of "Hurt." "There's more heart, soul and pain in that song than any I've heard in a long time. I love it."

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