Johnny Cash had no doubts about how "The Man Comes Around," his fourth collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, stacks up next to its Grammy-winning predecessors. "I firmly believe that it's the best record we've done," he says. "It reaches out even farther than the others did, it goes in so many different directions, but they all come together with me and how I could make these songs my own. They come together in being my songs."
Like the three previous installments of the Cash-Rubin "American Recordings" series, "The Man Comes Around" was largely recorded in the living room of Rubin's Los Angeles home. This time, though, some of the sessions were done at Cash's home studios in Tennessee and Jamaica (with one song, a heart-stopping version of the standard "Danny Boy," cut in under two hours at an Episcopal cathedral in LA). Once again the singer, the producer, and their friends and families all contributed dozens of ideas for songs to record; the fifteen selections that ultimately made the final cut represent one of the most surprising albums in the storied, nearly five-decade-long career of this legend in American music.
From Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" to Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," from the Beatles's "In My Life" to Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," from Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" to Cash's own classic "Give My Love to Rose," it would be hard to come up with a collection of songs that spanned more eras and styles. The guests who appear on the album - including Don Henley, Fiona Apple, and Nick Cave - only add to the sense of this project's range.
But leave it to the genius of Johnny Cash to find common emotional ground in such disparate material. "The theme of the album is spirit," he says. "The human spirit more than the spiritual or godly spirit - the human spirit fighting for survival. It probably reflects a little of the maturity that I've experienced with the pain that I've suffered from the illnesses that brought me so close to death."
Indeed, there are many who did not expect that Cash would be healthy enough to record another album after "American III: Solitary Man" was released in 2000. For years, his health problems have been misdiagnosed; first as Parkinson's Disease, then as Shy-Drager Syndrome. "Now they say it's autonomic neuropathy," says Cash. "I'm not sure what that means, except I think it means that you're getting old and shaky.
"I found myself overcoming these things by sheer will," he continues. "I won't give in to this disease. I found strength to work on this album just to spite this disease. I came to the studio sometimes with no voice, when I could have stayed at home and pouted, but I couldn’t let that happen. I came in and opened up my mouth and tried to let something come out. I recorded when that was the last thing in the world I thought I could do. And those are the tracks that have the feeling and the fire and the fervor and the passion - there's a great deal of strength coming out of that weakness."
Cash points to his version of Sting's song "Hung My Head" as one example of a performance that came on a particularly difficult day; by digging deep, he was able to transcend not only his pain but also his expectations. "It's the kind of song that I like," he says, "that mournful, tragic song. The songs of my people, a lot of them are songs of disaster and tragedy, murder, death, dying, and broken love affairs, and this song just fit right in there."
Cash reveals a special fondness for the two songs on "The Man Comes Around" that are initially the most suprising choices - the industrial anthems "Personal Jesus" and "Hurt," so dark and dissonant in their original recordings. But when producer Rubin brought them to Cash's attention, he recalled the demons in his own life and responded to them instantly. "I think 'Hurt' is the best anti-drug song I ever heard," says Cash. “It's a song about a man's pain and what we're capable of doing to ourselves and the possibility that we don't have to do that anymore. I could relate to that from the very beginning." As for "Personal Jesus," Cash says simply "that's probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded. I don't know that the writer meant it to be that, but that's what it is."
The album's strangest story is the genesis of the title track, the first new composition Cash has recorded in years. The saga begins about seven years ago in Nottingham, England. "I dreamed I was in Buckingham Palace and the Queen said to me, 'Johnny Cash, you're just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.'" He couldn't figure out what these images might mean, but he couldn't forget them. Several years later, he came across the word "whirlwind" in the Bible, leading him on a lengthy hunt through various concordances and reference books, and a study of Judgment Day and the Book of Revelation - and he started writing. "I wrote dozens and dozens of verses," he recalls. "I thought it was just going to be one of my weird poems but I started seeing a song forming. I never had a project that I put in as much time, as much writing, as I did on this song. I knew I was overwriting, but I had to do it, I had to get it out."
That passion and commitment defines the entire "Man Comes Around" album. Eight years after Rick Rubin - best known for his work with the likes of the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tom Petty - first approached Cash with the idea of making an album of just him and an acoustic guitar, Johnny Cash knows that all four installments of the "American Recordings" series represent a special phase of his career, a body of work that has maintained a pure focus on the power and integrity of his voice and his songs. "We're very protective of it," he says. "We watch our flanks. We record our stuff and have whoever we want to on the record - and we take no prisoners, we do it the way we want to."
In February, Johnny Cash celebrated his 70th birthday. "I got calls from all over the world," he says. "I had a nice day with all my old friends and the people I love, and I thought 'the whole world seems to be having a birthday party in my name tonight, and I'm going to bed early!'" In fact, 2002 was a year full of landmarks significant to Cash's life - the 50th anniversary of Sun Records, the revolutionary record label that introduced him to the world, and the 25th anniversary of the passing of his friend Elvis Presley - in addition to the release of several tribute albums celebrating his career and reissues of his seemingly endless catalogue. But Johnny Cash approaches all these honors and anniversaries the same way. "We're not into stopping and polishing milestones," he says. "We look forward to the next one - the 51st year,he71st year. We look forward to the work to be done."