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'American' Remembered: Rick Rubin On Johnny Cash.

In the decade leading up to his death in 2003, Johnny Cash worked with producer Rick Rubin on a series of albums they called American Recordings. This week, in honor of Cash's birthday, Rubin's label released Ain't No Grave, the sixth disc of songs produced in their collaboration.

This interview was originally broadcast on November 25, 2005

14:51

Other segments from the episode on February 26, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 26, 2010: Interview with Johnny Cash; Interview with Rick Rubin; Review of the film "A Prophet."

Transcript

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Johnny Cash: A Ghost Rider, Still Stirring Souls

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today would've been Johnny Cash's 78th
birthday, and the final album in Cash's series "American Recordings" was
released today. Produced by Rick Rubin, the series features Cash singing a mix
of traditional ballads, his own songs, and moody cover versions of songs by
artists ranging from Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright to Beck and Nine Inch
Nails.

Rubin and Cash started the series in 1994. This final album features songs
recorded between 2002 and Cash's death in September 2003. He died at the age of
71.

We're going to hear interviews I recorded with Cash and with Rubin. Let's start
with a song from the new album. This is "Redemption Day," written by Sheryl
Crow.

(Soundbite of song, "Redemption Day")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): (Singing) I've wept for those who suffer long, but
how I weep for those who've gone in rooms of grief and questioned wrong but
keep on killing. It's in the soul to feel such things but weak to watch without
speaking. Oh what mercy sadness brings if God be willing.

There is a train that's heading straight to heaven's gate, to heaven's gate,
and on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait for redemption
day.

Fire rages in the streets and swallows everything it meets...

GROSS: Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" series introduced him to a
generation of listeners too young to remember him for such hits as "I Walk the
Line," "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues." I spoke with Johnny Cash in
1997, after the publication of his autobiography, just days before he announced
that he had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder, which was a
complication of diabetes and eventually resulted in respiratory failure. I'm so
grateful I had this chance to talk with him.

You grew up during the Depression. What are some of the things that your father
did to make a living while you were a boy?

Mr. CASH: My father was a cotton farmer first, but he didn't have any land, or
what land he had, he lost it in the Depression. So he worked as a woodsman and
cut pulp wood for the paper mills, rode the rails in boxcars going from one
harvest to another to try to make a little money picking fruit or vegetables.

He did every kind of work imaginable, from painting to shoveling to herding
cattle, and he's always been such an inspiration to me because of varied kinds
of things that he did and the kind of life he lived. He inspired me so that all
the things he did, so far from being a soldier in World War I to being an old
man on his patio, sitting on the porch, watching the dogs, you know - I think
about his life, and it would inspire me to go my own other direction, and I
just like to explore minds and the desires of the people out here.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you say that your father inspired you so
much. I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted to lead his life picking cotton.

Mr. CASH: I did. Until I was 18 years old, that is. Then I picked the guitar,
and I've been picking it since.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Did you have a plan to get out? Did you very much want to get out
of the town where you were brought up and get out of picking cotton?

Mr. CASH: Yeah, I knew that when I left there at the age of 18 I wouldn't be
back. And it was kind of common knowledge among all the people there that when
you graduate from high school here, you go to college or go get a job or
something and do it on your own.

And I haven't been familiar with hard work. It was no problem for me. But
first, I hitchhiked to Pontiac, Michigan and got a job worked in Fisher Body,
making those 1951 Pontiacs. I worked there three weeks, got really sick of it,
went back home and joined the Air Force.

GROSS: You have such a wonderful, deep voice. Did you start singing before your
voice changed?

Mr. CASH: Oh yeah. I got no deep voice today; I've got a cold. But when I was
young, I had a high tenor voice. I used to sing Bill Monroe songs, and I sang
Dennis Day songs, like...

GROSS: Oh no.

Mr. CASH: Yeah, songs that he sang on the Jack Benny show.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. CASH: Every week, he sang an old Irish folk song, and the next day in the
fields I'd be singing that song if I was working in the fields, and I always
loved those songs, and with my high tenor, I thought I was pretty good, you
know, almost as good as Dennis Day.

But when I was 17, 16, my father and I cut wood all day long, and I was
swinging that crosscut saw and hauling wood, and when I walked in the back door
late that afternoon, I was singing...

(Singing) Everybody gonna have religion and glory. Everybody gonna be singing a
story.

(Speaking) I sang those old gospel songs for my mother, and she said: Is that
you? And I said yes, ma'am, and she came over and put her arms around me and
put her arms around me and said: God's got his hands on you. I still think of
that, you know?

GROSS: You left home when you were about 18, and then how old were you when you
actually went to Memphis?

Mr. CASH: Well, I went to Memphis after I finished the Air Force in 1954. I
lived on that farm until I went to the Air Force. I was in there four years,
and when I came back, I got married and moved to Memphis, got an apartment,
started trying to sell appliances at a place called Home Equipment Company. But
I couldn't sell anything and didn't really want to. All I wanted was the music,
and if somebody in the house was playing music when I would come, I would stop
and sing with them.

Like one time, Gus Cannon, the man who wrote "Walk Right In," which was a hit
for The Rooftop Singers, and I sat on the front porch with him day after day
when I found him and sang those songs.

GROSS: When you got to Memphis, Elvis Presley had already recorded "That's All
Right." Sam Phillips had produced him for his label, Sun Records. You called
Sam Phillips and asked for an audition. Did it take a lot of nerve to make that
phone call?

Mr. CASH: No, it just took the right time. I was fully confident that I was
going to see Sam Phillips and to record for him. When I called him, I thought:
I'm going to get on Sun Records.

So I called him, and he turned me down flat. Then two weeks later, I call him,
turned down again. He told me over the phone that he couldn't sell gospel music
so – it was independent and not a lot of money, you know.

So I didn't press that issue, but one day I just decided I'm ready to go. So I
went down with my guitar and sat on the front steps of his recording studio and
met him when he came in. And I said: I'm John Cash. I'm the one who's been
calling, and if you'd listen to me, I believe you'll be glad you did. And he
said, come on in.

That was a good lesson for me, you know, to believe in myself.

GROSS: So what did Phillips actually respond to most of the songs that you
played him?

Mr. CASH: He responded most to a song of mine called "Hey Porter," which was on
the first record, but he asked me to go write a love song or maybe a bitter
weeper. So I wrote a song called "Cry! Cry! Cry!" - went back in and recorded
that for the other side of the record.

(Soundbite of song, "Cry! Cry! Cry!")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down. I
think you only live to see the lights uptown. I wasted my time when I would
try, try, try, 'cuz when the lights have lost their glow you cry, cry, cry.

Soon your sugar daddies will all be gone. You'll wake up some cold day and find
you're alone. You'll call for me, but I'm gonna tell you bye, bye, bye. When I
turn around and walk away, you'll cry, cry, cry.

You're gonna cry, cry, cry, and you cry alone. When everyone's forgotten and
you're left on your own, you're gonna cry, cry, cry.

GROSS: So this record was the beginning of your recording career. What was it
like when you started to go on tour? You know, after coming from the cotton
fields – it's true, I mean, you'd been in the Army, and you'd been abroad, you
know, with the Army, but what was it like for you in the early days of getting
recognized, you know, traveling around the country?

Mr. CASH: Well, when I started playing concerts, I went out from Memphis to
Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, played the little towns there, that I would
go out myself in my car and set up the show or get the show booked in those
theaters.

And then along about three months later, Elvis Presley asked me to sing with
him at the Overton Park shell in Memphis, and I sang "Cry! Cry! Cry!" and "Hey
Porter." And from that time on, I was on my way, and I knew it, I felt it, and
I loved it. So Elvis asked me to go on tour with him, and I did. I worked with
Elvis four or five tours in the next year or so.

And I was always intrigued by his charisma. Just - you can't be in the building
with Elvis without looking at him, you know? And he inspired me so with his
fire and energy that I guess that inspiration from him really helped me to go.

GROSS: It's funny. I think of your charisma and his charisma as being very
different forms of charisma because, I mean, he would move around so much on
stage, and I think of your charisma as being a very kind of still, stoic kind
of charisma.

Mr. CASH: Well, I'm an old man to him. I'm four years older than he was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: So I was 23 when I started recording, and Elvis was 19, and I was
married, he wasn't. So we didn't have a lot in common - common family life. But
we liked each other and appreciated each other. So he asked me to tour with
him.

GROSS: Did you want that kind of adulation that he was getting from girls who
would come see him?

Mr. CASH: I don't remember if I wanted it, but I loved it. Yeah, I did, but I
didn't – I only got it to a very small degree compared to Elvis.

GROSS: I want to play what I think was your first big hit, "I Walk The Line."

Mr. CASH: That was my third record.

GROSS: And you wrote this song. Tell me the story of how you wrote it and what
you were thinking about at the time.

Mr. CASH: In the Air Force I had old Wilcox K(ph) recorder and used to hear
guitar runs on that recorder going - (humming) - like the chords on "I Walk The
Line." And I always wanted to write a love song using that theme, you know,
that tune, and so I started to write the song, and I was in Gladewater, Texas,
one night with Carl Perkins, and I said: I've got a good idea for a song.

And I sang him the first verse that I had written, and I said, it's called
"Because You're Mine." And he said, "I Walk The Line" is a better title. So I
changed it to "I Walk The Line."

GROSS: Now, were you thinking of your own life when you wrote this?

Mr. CASH: Uh-huh. It was kind of a prodding to myself to play it straight,
Johnny.

GROSS: And was this, I think I read that this was supposed to be a ballad. I
mean, it was supposed to be slow when you first wrote it.

Mr. CASH: Well, that's the way I sang it, yeah, at first. Sam wanted it up, you
know, up-tempo, and I put paper in the strings of my guitar to get that -
(humming) - sound, and with a bass and a lead guitar, there it was. Bare and
stark that song was when it was released, and I heard it on the radio, and I
really didn't like it, and I called Sam Phillips asked him please not to send
out any more records of that song.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CASH: But he – he laughed me. I just didn't like the way it sounded to me.
I didn't know I sounded that way, and I didn't like it. I don't know. But he
said let's give it a chance, and it was just a few days until – that's all it
took to take off.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "I Walk The Line." This is a great record. It was great
then, and it still is. This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of song, "I Walk The Line")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes
wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds. Because
you're mine, I walk the line.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting. You've always or almost always worn black
during your career, and I was interested in reading that your mother hated it
too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: She – yeah, she did.

GROSS: So we have something in common. Our mothers don't like black.

Mr. CASH: Yeah. But I love it.

GROSS: Me too. But you gave in for a while. She started making you bright,
flashy outfits, even a nice white suit. What did it feel like for you to be on
stage in bright colors or all in white?

Mr. CASH: Well, that was 1956, and I hadn't been wearing the black for very
long. So it was okay. I would wear anything my mother made me, you know. I just
couldn't afford to turn her down. But before long, I decided to start with the
black and stick with it because it felt good to me on stage, a figure there in
black, and everything coming out his face; that's the way I wanted to do it.

GROSS: We'll hear more of our 1997 interview with Johnny Cash after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the 1997 interview I recorded with Johnny Cash. The
final album in his "American Recording" series was released today.

I think it was in the late 1950s that you started doing prison concerts, which
you eventually became very famous for. What got you started performing in
prison?

Mr. CASH: Well, I had a song called "Folsom Prison Blues" that was the hit just
before "I Walk The Line," and the people in Texas heard about it at the state
prison and got to writing me letters asking me to come down there. So I
responded, and then the warden called me and asked if I would come down and do
a show for the prisoners in Texas.

And so we went down, and there's a rodeo at all these shows that the prisoners
have there, and then between the rodeo things, they asked me to set up and do
two or three songs.

So that was what I did. I did "Folsom Prison Blues," which they thought was
their song, you know, and "I Walk The Line," "Hey Porter, "Cry! Cry! Cry!" And
then the word got around on the grapevine that Johnny Cash was all right, and
you ought to see him.

So the requests started coming in from other prisoners all over the United
States, and then the word got around. So I always wanted to record that, you
know, to record a show because of the reaction I got. It was far and above
anything I had ever had in my life, the complete explosion of noise and
reaction that they gave me with every song.

So then I came back the next year and played the prison again, the New Year's
Day show, came back again the third year and did the show. And then I kept
talking to my producers at Columbia about recording one of those shows. It was
so exciting. I said that the people out there ought to share that, you know,
and feel that excitement too.

So a preacher friend, a friend of mine named Floyd Bressett(ph), set it up for
us, and Lou Robin and a lot of other people involved at Folsom Prison. So we
went into Folsom on February 11, 1968 and recorded a show live.

GROSS: Before we hear one of the tracks from that live album, tell me what it
was – what kind of reaction surprised you the most when you were performing for
prisoners?

Mr. CASH: Well, what really surprised me was any kind of prison song, I could
do no wrong. You know, whatever the prisoner song or "San Quentin," a song of
mine, but they felt like they could identify with me, I suppose. I came from –
I sang songs like "Dark As A Dungeon" or "Bottom of a Mountain," songs about
the working man and the hard life, and of course they'd been through the hard
life, all of them, or they wouldn't be there.

So they kind of related to all that, I guess, with the songs I chose, very
little of love songs, very few - mostly, you know, songs about the down-and-
outer.

And so, then requests started coming in for me to go to other prisons, and it
got overwhelming. So I decided I would do two or three, and I wouldn't do any
more. One thing, my wife was scared to death, and the other women on the show
were too. So I decided not to. It was still a great experience to get on stage
and perform for those people.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Folsom Prison Blues" from your "Live at Folsom
Prison" record. This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of song, "Folsom Prison Blue")

Mr. CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend,
and I ain't seen the sunshine since, I don't know when. I'm stuck in Folsom
Prison, and time keeps draggin' on, but that train keeps a-rollin' on down to
San Antone.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son, always be a good boy, don't ever
play with guns, but I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. When I hear
that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1997 interview with Johnny Cash in the second half
of the show. The final album in his "American Recordings" series was released
today. Today would've been his 78th birthday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Folsom Prison Blues")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I bet there's rich folks eatin' from a fancy dining car.
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars. Well, I know I had it
comin'. I know I can't be free. But those people keep a-movin', and that's what
tortures me.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "Memories Are Made Of This")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Johnny Cash would've been 78 today. This is also the release date of the sixth
and final album in his "American Recordings" series. Let's get back to the
interview I recorded with Cash in 1997 after the publication of his
autobiography. We talked about the "American Recordings" series.

A few years ago, you started making records with Rick Rubin. Tell me how you
and he first met up. It seemed initially like a very improbable match. He had
produced a lot of rap records and produced the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. You know, it would seem like a surprising match. It ended up
being a fantastic match. How did he approach you?

Mr. CASH: Well, my contract with Mercury PolyGram Nashville was about to
expire. And I never had really been happy. The company - the record company
just didn’t put any promotion behind me. I think one album, maybe the last one
I did, they pressed 500 copies. And I was just disgusted with it so I decided
I'll just do my thing. I'll do my tours and writing and that's all I need, so
that's what I was trying to do. But I got hungry to be back in the studio, to
be creative and put something down, you know, for the fans to hear. And about
that time that I got to feeling that way, Lou Robin, my manager, came to me and
talked to me about a man called Rick Rubin that he had been talking to that
wanted me to sign with his record company. It was "American Recordings."

I said I like the name. Maybe it would be okay. So I said I'd like to meet the
guy. I'd like for him to tell me what he can do with me that they're not doing
now. So he came to my concert in Orange County, California, I believe this was
like '83 when he first came and listened to the show. And then afterwards, I
went in the dressing room and sat and talked to him. And, you know, he had his
hair, I don’t think it’s ever been cut, and very - dresses like a hobo usually
- clean but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: Was the kind of guy I really felt comfortable with, actually. I think
I was more comfortable with him than I would've been with a producer with a
suit on. But I said, what are you going to do with me that nobody else has been
able to do to sell records with me? And he said well, I don't know that we will
sell records. He said, I would like you to go with me and sit in my living room
with a guitar and two microphones and just sing till your heart's content
everything you ever wanted to record. I said that sounds good to me. So I did
that. And day after day, three weeks I sang for him and when I finally stopped,
he had been saying like the last day or so, he'd been saying now I think we
should put this one in the album.

So, without him saying I want to record you and release an album, he kept - he
started saying let's put this one in the album. So the album - this big
question, you know, began to take form, take shape. And Rick and I would weed
out the songs. There were songs that didn’t feel good to us that we would say,
let's don’t consider that one. And then we'd focus on the ones that we did
like, that felt right and sounded right. And if I didn’t like the performance
on that song, I would keep trying it and do take after take until it felt
comfortable with me and felt that it was coming out of me and my guitar and my
voice as one, that it was right for my soul.

That's how I felt about, you know, all those things in that first album and I
got really excited about it. But then we went into the studio and tried to
record some with the different musicians and it didn’t sound good. It didn’t
work. So we put together the album with just a guitar and myself.

GROSS: Yeah. I was really glad you did it that way. There's something just so
naked about it.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: There's something so just emotionally naked.

Mr. CASH: (Unintelligible)

GROSS: And there's so much emotion in your voice and it just all, you know,
comes across really clearly.

Mr. CASH: Thank you.

GROSS: I think these records and the touring that you’ve done with him has
helped introduce you to a younger audience that wasn’t around during your
earlier hits and maybe knew your reputation but didn’t really know you music
very well.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm wondering what that experience has been like for you to play to
younger audiences who are first getting acquainted with your music.

Mr. CASH: Oh, it feels like 1955 all over again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: It really does. It really does. And the ones who've been into my new
recordings are becoming familiar with some of the old stuff like "Folsom," and
"I Walk The Line," and "Ring of Fire." And those songs now just really get a
reaction like I did on my songs back in the '50s. But it sounds - it feels so
good with those young people. And the adulation, I just love it. I've always
been a big ham. I just eat it up. I'm very appreciative to them.

GROSS: Johnny Cash, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CASH: I want to say, you’re really good at what you do and I appreciate
you. Thank you.

GROSS: Johnny Cash recorded in 1997. The final album in his "American
Recordings" series produced by Rick Rubin was released today.

I spoke with Rubin in 2004, after the release of a 5 CD box set of the Cash-
Rubin sessions called "Unearthed." Before we hear the interview, here's a track
from "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of song "When He Reached Down His Hand For Me")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Once my soul was astray from the heavenly way I was
wretched and vile as could be. But my Savior and love gave me peace from above
when he reached down his hand for me. When my Savior reached down for me, when
he reached down his hand for me, I was lost and undone without God or his son,
when he reached down his hand for me.
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'American' Remembered: Rick Rubin On Johnny Cash

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the CD's in this new box set is just spirituals - spirituals and hymns,
solo. It's just Johnny Cash and his guitar and I just particularly love this
CD. They're so beautiful and there's so much feeling on this. And I don’t know
if you’d listened to a lot of these kinds of songs before, so I'm interested in
what the process was like for you of just hearing Johnny Cash sing spiritual
after spiritual.

Mr. RICK RUBIN (Record Producer): I thought it was beautiful and it was
interesting how it came about. Johnny had found - the title of that album is
called "My Mother's Hymn Book," and Johnny had found his mother's hymn book,
the actual one that she sang him songs from the time he was born. And these are
songs that he'd been singing since he was four years old and they really helped
form who he was as a person and as a singer, so he felt more connected to these
songs I think than any songs he ever recorded before, and very second-nature
for him to play them.

GROSS: While you were recording these songs, did it give you insights into
Johnny Cash's relationship with religion and spirituality?

Mr. RUBIN: He's probably the most committed spiritual person I've ever met. He
really lived his life according to his connection with God, really. And he had
such an honest and pure way about it that - I remember we had a dinner party at
my house one night with Johnny and June and some musicians and some film
directors, and before dinner, Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a
prayer and he read from a Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had
never experienced that before and some of the people at the table were even
atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you
believed didn’t matter so much because you were in the presence of someone who
really believed and that felt good and that made you believe really in him more
than anything else. It was really beautiful.

GROSS: Why don’t we hear "I Shall Not Be Moved"? I think a lot of people know
this as a spiritual that was also used as a civil rights song - it was one of
the anthems of the civil rights movement. I'm not sure I've ever heard it sung
this way before. What about you?

Mr. RUBIN: I don’t think I have either.

GROSS: And what did the song mean to him? Did he talk about it at all?

Mr. RUBIN: He asked my opinion and was not concerned, but didn’t want to create
confusion and wanted to make sure that people understood that when he sang the
song he was singing it as a devotional song. And, when we talked about it, we
kind of came to the conclusion that regardless of how people took it, either
way the message was a good one and he was fine with it.

GROSS: Okay. This is Johnny Cash as featured on the box set "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of song, "I Shall Not Be Moved")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Glory hallelujah, I shall not be moved. Anchored in
Jehovah, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the waters, I
shall not be moved. In his love abiding, I shall not be moved. And in him
confiding, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the
water, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I shall not be moved. I shall not
be, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the water, I
shall not be moved.

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash singing "I Shall Not Be Moved" from one of his
sessions with producer Rick Rubin. We'll hear more from Rubin after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded with Rick Rubin about
producing Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" series. The final album in the
series was released today.

Now some of the takes that you’ve released over the years are recordings that
he actually made in your living room. Do I have that right?

Mr. RUBIN: Yes.

GROSS: Not even in your recording studio but in your living room.

Mr. RUBIN: That's correct. The whole first album was recorded in the living
room of my house.

GROSS: And why did - when you were recording in the living room, did you do it
with the idea that this would be the final takes, this would be what you would
release?

Mr. RUBIN: Originally not. Originally they were demos, and then as we were
recording in studios and in different places and trying different things, when
we listened to all the different things we tried, the living room tapes were
kind of the most exciting to both of us, so we continued recording in the
living room.

GROSS: Why do you think that was so? Why do you think the living room tapes
were the most exciting?

Mr. RUBIN: I think it's because Johnny had made so many albums in the recording
studio that it reframed the experience of recording and it really was just he
and I sitting on a couch and him playing these songs. And it had a more
personal and intimate and internal feeling about it. It wasn’t - I spoke
earlier about the performance aspect of playing in front of people and I
suppose being in a recording studio has those same kind of - there's a certain
expectation of getting on the mic in a recording studio that there's some kind
of permanence about it, where singing songs in the living room is - it's really
casual.

So I think the catching the casual - his real true causal personality was
something that we were able to do better in the living room environment than in
a studio environment. And then as time went on, I put a studio in my house,
which has very much of a living room environment.

GROSS: When did Johnny Cash start getting sick within the period of time you
were working with him? I mean, how deep were you into the recordings when it
was clear that something was going wrong?

Mr. RUBIN: During the recording of the second album, which was called
"Unchained," was when he started - when it became apparent that he was not
well.

GROSS: How did it - like, what were the first things that made that clear?

Mr. RUBIN: We'd be in the studio working and he would get dizzy or he would be
unable to sing and have to lay down for a while. And some days he wasn’t able
to sing and he would just not be himself, not be himself at all.

GROSS: What were some of the most difficult parts for him of being sick and
vulnerable - somebody who'd been so strong and seemingly stoic just judging
from the records, you know?

Mr. RUBIN: Yeah, he was. I think stopping touring was a really big blow to him
because he had been on tour for the last 40 years doing, you know, 200 shows a
week per year. And I think he felt like he in some way lost his purpose because
he was an artist and his - the thing that drove him was connecting with people
and entertaining people and inspiring people and he felt like one of the main
venues for doing that was taken away from him and I think that was a very, very
difficult transition.

And probably the reason that he chose to record so much was because that was
the part of his career that he could continue on and continue being an artist
and continue being creative and continue communicating. And that's one of the
reasons that we have the box that we have. If he was still touring I don’t know
that we would've been able to record so much.

GROSS: What was your recording schedule like after he got sick?

Mr. RUBIN: We would record as often as he wanted to record. We set up a kind of
a home studio at his home and we had the studio at my house and we would work
in both of them all the time and as often as he would want us to get together.
Or sometimes he would record stuff on his own or - and send me tapes and then I
would work on them, or sometimes I'd work on tracks and send them to him and
he'd sing them. And we had a just kind of an ongoing - we were always working.

GROSS: Did you live close together?

Mr. RUBIN: No, he lived in Nashville and I live in Los Angeles.

GROSS: Oh, so one of you was always flying back and forth.

Mr. RUBIN: Yes. Although, we did some, as I said, I would record some tracks at
my house and send them to him. He would sing them and send them back.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUBIN: Or he would work on - he would cut an acoustic track and send it to
me and then we would add whatever was going to be added to it here and
sometimes we worked long distance as well.

GROSS: It must be extraordinary for you to know that you produced this
extraordinary body of work from an older musician at a time when, you know,
you’re supposed to be like over the hill - the best work is supposed to be
behind you. And this is work that not only changed Johnny Cash's image and, you
know, got him, you know, Grammy Awards and everything, but it’s just such
valuable music to have. I mean, it’s so - I'm so glad we have it.

Mr. RUBIN: I agree. And I feel like it's really an issue with our society that
we really discard good things before their time just because they get old or
look a little ragged. And I don’t think age in any way took away from Johnny's
greatness. And in many ways, as he got older, and even as his voice may have
gotten weaker, it somehow was able to convey emotion in an even deeper way and,
you know, we can't discount the wisdom.

He had so much wisdom from both the wild life he led - he really led the life
of - he led 10 lives during the course of his lifetime and was so interested in
so many things and was really a researcher and studied and read all the time,
was so smart and he had so much to offer. And the idea that someone like him
could be put out to pasture is - it's really a shame and just a terrible
mistake.

GROSS: Rick Rubin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RUBIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Rick Rubin recorded in 2004. The final album from Rubin and Cash's
"American Recordings" series was released today. It's called "American VI:
Ain't No Grave." Here's another song from it.

(Soundbite of song, "Alohe Oe")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Proudly swept the rainclouds by the cliff. As on it glided
through the trees. Still following with glee, haaheo hihi lehua of the valley.
Aloha oe, aloha oe. E ke onaona noho i ka lipo. One fond embrace, a hoi ae au.
Until we meet again.

GROSS: Coming up: David Edelstein reviews the French film "A Prophet," which is
nominated for an Oscar.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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Behind Bars, Lessons In Life, Death And Freedom

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

The French director Jacques Audiard won the grand prize at the 2009 Cannes Film
Festival for his drama "A Prophet," which has also been nominated for an Oscar
for Best Foreign Film.

The film is set in a French prison largely divided along racial lines between
violent gangs of Corsicans and Arabs.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Jacques Audiard is drawn to the bleakest scenarios imaginable,
yet something in him fights against gloom and doom. His terrific 2005 film "The
Beat My Heart Skipped" was a remake of James Toback's 1978 "Fingers," which
ended in its hero's damnation. But Audiard embraced the romance at the story's
core and gave the man a way out.

Now, in his engrossing prison drama "A Prophet," Audiard works with a plot that
vaguely resembles Brian De Palma's splattery, cocaine-fueled "Scarface," about
an immigrant at the bottom of the food chain who seizes power through violence.
But Audiard regards his hero differently. He doesn't celebrate the man, but he
doesn't damn him, either.

The movie opens the way many tragedies close, with a character forced to choose
between his life and his soul. He is Malik played by Tahar Rahim, a 19-year-old
French Arab sentenced to six years for assaulting a policeman under
circumstances that remain unclear. When he enters the prison he's tremulous,
visibly frightened.

Almost at once he's set upon by the most powerful inmate, an aging Corsican
mobster named Cesar played by Niels Arestrup, who orders him to seduce and slit
the throat of another French Arab about to testify at a trial. If Malik
refuses, he'll die. If he agrees, his survival is ensured. Still, he tries
everything to keep from killing a fellow Arab, from blowing the whistle to
getting thrown into solitary confinement.

Audiard's camera is extraordinarily intimate: We hover just above Malik's
shoulder as he finally acquiesces, as he learns, dribbling blood, to conceal a
straight razor in his mouth and to leap from his knees and swing for the
jugular. The man marked for death proves to be kindly and attentive, and the
violence, when it comes, is clumsy, garish, gruelingly prolonged. Malik grew up
in state institutions and is nonreligious, culturally unaffiliated, but now
more than ever he's a man without a country. The Corsicans protect him, but
call him a dirty Arab and use him as a servant. The Arabs shun him as a
Corsican.

Then, for the more than two hours that remain of "A Prophet," the illiterate
Malik learns to read — not just books, but the power structure of the prison
and the world at large. It's a strange, gripping, sometimes confusing journey,
since Malik's features harden and Rahim's performance becomes more internal.

His scenes with the marvelous Arestrup have dizzying crosscurrents. Cesar
regularly slaps Malik around, yet as the majority of Corsicans are released
from the prison — repatriated under new French laws — he's dependent on the
young Arab as a kind of surrogate son. Meanwhile, with stealth and subtlety,
Malik, this man without a country, begins to correct - sometimes brutally - the
imbalance of his life and forge a new identity as a Muslim gangster.

"A Prophet" isn't another of those washed-out brownish prison pictures. The
colors are warm, the vistas wide. Often, almost matter-of-factly, the boundary
disappears between the real and supernatural. The film is sometimes hard to
follow. When Malik is permitted to leave the prison for 12 hours at a time and
begins to form alliances with Italian, Corsican and Egyptian gangsters, you
can't always tell whom he's playing off whom. That's the price you sometimes
pay, though, for filmmakers who zig and zag and resist clicking into
established grooves. Even when you don't know what Malik is doing, you know he
knows.

The title "A Prophet" is ambiguous, since Malik preaches nothing. But his rise
is a testament to self-reliance in a malignant universe. The grim central irony
is a classic gangster-movie manifesto: It's only via prison that its hero finds
existential freedom.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us
on Twitter and friend us on Facebook at nprfreshair.

(Soundbite of music)

I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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