It was 20 years ago today…November 1996

Johnny Cash: Unchained

Unchained was the second label of covers and re-workings put out by Johnny Cash on the American Recordings label.  The first had featured songs written by Nick Lowe and Glenn Danzig, and was well received within the music world, but the series of recordings between Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash really began to take on a different form with the release of Unchained.

The album was recorded using Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the backing band, lending their considerable talent to arrangements and suggestions.

I’m going to be honest, I really wanted to review this album so that I could talk about one song.  When I was in high school, I was devouring all the music I could get my hands on, be it the radio or television.  When I came across Johnny Freaking Cash covering Soundgarden, I just about flipped out of my mind.  I knew Johnny Cash as “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”, all of which are good songs, but not enough for me to dig into 40+ years of the man’s body of recorded work.

Hearing “Rusty Cage” changed all that.  I now count Johnny Cash as one of my all time favorite performers.  Folsom Prison Blues is on my “must own” vinyl list.  All because I heard him covering a song I considered to be well outside his usual sphere of influence.

Word has it, producer Rick Rubin, generally known for his work as a rap producer, when he stumbled across a song he thought would sound good as a stripped down song with Johnny Cash’s distinctive voice, he would record a demo.  If Cash had heard Soundgarden’s version of “Rusty Cage”, he would have thought it was trash, but hearing a demo with acoustic guitars and the lyrics front and center, he decided to cover the song.  What he provided is a commanding performance of a stereotypical “grunge” song and turned it into a traditional country ballad.

Unchained would go on to win the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album, beating out such competitors as Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, George Strait and Dwight Yoakam.  It validated the work Rick Rubin was doing in choosing to work with Johnny Cash.  More than that, thought, it proved that an old traditional country artist could still provide something newsworthy within the music scene.

Unchained was the album that got me in to Johnny Cash, a debt for which I am eternally grateful.  It also warmed me to country music, for which I have since found my love of the Dixie Chicks, among other artists.  Owing to the interest generated through the years, Soundgarden now dedicates “Rusty Cage” to The Man in Black at their concerts.



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