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SHOW: Fresh Air
DATE: November 25, 2005
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
"Walk The Line," the new film about Johnny Cash, is now in theaters. Yesterday
we featured interviews with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Today we hear
from Cash's daughter, Rosanne Cash. Terry Gross spoke with her in early summer
2003, three months after the death of her stepmother, June. At the time of the
interview, her father was still alive, and she had just released her comeback
CD after losing her voice for two and a half years, the result of a polyp on
her vocal cords. It was called "Rules of Travel." Here's a duet from that CD
featuring her and her father, Johnny Cash.
(Soundbite of "September When It Comes")
Ms. ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) There's a cross above the baby's bed, a savior in
her dreams. She was not delivered then, and the baby became me. There's a
light inside the darkened room, a footstep on the stair, a door that I forever
close to leave those memories there. So when the shadows lengthen into the
evening sun, well, first here's summer, then I'll let you in September when it
Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I plant a cross outside these walls, close my eyes
and see and fall into the heart and arms of those who wait for me. I cannot
move a mountain now. I can no longer run. I cannot be who I was then. In a
way, I never was.
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Watch the clouds go sailing. I watched the clock and sun.
Oh, I watch myself depending on...
Ms. CASH and Mr. CASH: (Singing) September when it comes.
DAVIES: When Terry Gross spoke to Rosanne Cash in 2003, she asked her if she
wrote "September When It Comes" with her father in mind.
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
Ms. CASH: No, I didn't, although he was indirectly the inspiration for the song
because he got very ill about 10 years ago for the first time. And that first
glimpse of a parent's mortality, you know, it's a bit of a shakeup. And just
the train of thought that it propelled me on--you know, my own mortality, the
unresolved issues with my parents, all of that--was kind of up for me. So I
wrote this song, not intending to have him sing on it at all. And, in fact, I
recorded it by myself.
TERRY GROSS, host:
So how did your father end up duetting with you?
Ms. CASH: My husband, John Leventhal, who produced this record, after it was
finished, you know, after we had recorded it, he said, `You really should ask
your dad to sing on this. You know, we'll overdub it and put him on.' And I
resisted for the first few months that he kept bringing it up. He brought it
up several times, and I said, `No, I don't want to invite people, you know, to
think that I'm using him or that it's a novelty 'cause the song is too
important.' And John finally said, `Exactly, the song is too important. It's
the right song. It's the right time. You should do this.' So I asked my dad,
and I said, `Dad, I have this song I'd love for you to sing on.' And he said,
`Well, I have to read the lyrics first.'
GROSS: Well, you know, I think that's interesting. He didn't want to hear the
music. He wanted to read the lyrics.
Ms. CASH: Well, you know, he...
GROSS: Why were the lyrics more important than the music?
Ms. CASH: Well, he wanted to make sure that what he was saying was something
that was authentic to him. So when I took the tape down there and he read the
lyrics, he said, `Yes, I can do this.'
GROSS: Did he say anything else about the lyrics?
Ms. CASH: Not then. It was so obvious, you know. He's not one to belabor a
point, and he's also not one to oversentimentalize things. And he has kind of
a ruthless vision of the truth. So, you know, he knew what the song was about,
and he knew it was the right time for us to do this. He told me actually not
long ago--he said, `I'm really proud of this song in the context of the whole
record.' And that meant more to me than if he had just said, `I'm really proud
of this song.'
GROSS: You know, your father, who has such an image of strength, is very
vulnerable now. Your stepmother, June Carter, died last month. I mean, you're
at that stage in life where you're watching parents become vulnerable...
Ms. CASH: Yes.
GROSS: ...or pass away. And it's something that so many people in their 40s
and 50s are going through now.
Ms. CASH: Well, I would say 90 percent of my friends are going through the same
thing. You know, it's kind of startling. You realize, `Oh, this is a
developmental stage or something; everybody goes through this.' You know, you
don't think about it when you're younger. But, boy, it really rearranges
everything, your priorities. It's really changed what I've held on to that I
didn't have to be holding on to. You know that saying that after the age of 25
it's unseemly to blame your parents for your life? I would have to agree with
Were you very close with June Carter?
Ms. CASH: Mm, I was very close with June. I always said that my mother gave me
structure and June gave me wings, and both were essential for my life. And I
really would not have become a performer had it not been for June.
GROSS: Why not? What did she do that encouraged you?
Ms. CASH: Well, it wasn't overt. It was just being around her and being on the
road with her for a few years, actually. And, you know, she had been on the
road virtually her entire life. She had been a performer since she was a
preteen. And she had a naturalness about it, and she just incorporated--being
in front of an audience and performing and singing and playing music, she
incorporated it into her life. It wasn't separate. She didn't change
personalities when she was backstage and then when she walked on stage. It was
all the same. And that kind of natural affinity for it made me rethink it
because, you know, as a child I thought, `Well, being a performer is just the
worst thing you could possibly do. It invites fame, and that's the worst thing
that could happen to you,' because from my point of view as a child, you know,
it destroys your family, and it made you take substances to stay awake and it
was exhausting and, you know, the whole thing. So to see June the way she did
it was--I rethought it. You know, I thought, `Well, this might not be such a
bad life after all.'
GROSS: You said that she was the same person on stage as off.
Ms. CASH: She was.
GROSS: And what about your father? Is he different on stage?
Ms. CASH: No. He's the same guy, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASH: In fact, he's more himself on stage. It's interesting, any
distractions fall away once he's under the lights. He becomes very focused. He
becomes kind of his essential self. He becomes timeless when he's on stage.
GROSS: Can you share some memories from when you started performing with Johnny
Cash and June Carter? And I think this was, like, after you graduated from
Ms. CASH: Yeah, when I went on the road with him after high school, it was a
way to see the world. I wasn't interested in being a singer or a performer. I
just wanted to be with my dad and travel, and, you know, that's what that was
about. It was later that I kind of grew into that life.
GROSS: So what were you doing on the tour when you weren't really interested in
Ms. CASH: I think they put me down as laundress on the manifest, so that they
could write me off their taxes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CASH: So I do remember washing out some black pants in a bathtub a couple
of times, but that was about the extent of it. But, you know, I was traveling.
I was doing what they did. I was learning how to order in really great
restaurants and find the best hotels, and, you know, it was a great life, a
wonderful life for a young girl.
GROSS: Were there certain generational differences that you realized existed...
Ms. CASH: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...between you and Johnny Cash and June Carter, things that affected you
personally but also as a performer?
Ms. CASH: Yes. Well, it was different partly and, actually, in a very large
part because of their upbringings, which were very different from mine. You
know, I was raised in Southern California. I grew up on rock 'n' roll. I was
profoundly imprinted by The Beatles, and, you know, I was a modern, kind of
semi-urban girl. And they both grew up in very rural surroundings, my dad in
Arkansas in cotton fields and June in Appalachia. So their lives were
transformed by becoming performers and by becoming public people, but they had
that kind of very Old World notion about it: that the fans are part of their
life, and they're very accepting. And I have never once in my entire life seen
June or my dad be rude to a fan who came up to them, no matter how, you know,
disturbing it was or how unwelcome it was. They're unfailingly polite.
And so that--you know, just the upbringing was very different. That provided a
generational difference, a huge one. And I don't exactly feel that way. I
mean, I like my private life. There are choices they've made about being
public people that I would not have made.
GROSS: Like what?
Ms. CASH: Well, June's funeral is the first thing that comes to mind, the fact
of my dad wanting it to be public, you know. I mean, we all understood why:
because their lives have been lived in public, because their fans are so much a
part of their lives, because it's a very Southern thing to do for public people
in the South. Me and my sisters and my brother were just, `Oh, you know,
please, we just don't want to do this.' But we totally respected and understood
that. That would not have been a choice we would have made.
DAVIES: Rosanne Cash speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. The interview was
recorded shortly after the death of her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and
shortly before the death of her father, Johnny Cash. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Rosanne Cash recorded in 2003.
She'd just released her CD, "Rules of Travel."
(Soundbite of 2003 interview)
GROSS: Let me play another song from your latest CD, "Rules of Travel." And
this is a song you wrote called "I'll Change For You," and songwriter and
singer Steve Earle duets with you on this. You want to say a few words about
the song before we hear it?
Ms. CASH: Well, it was kind of a--I wrote this song as kind of a nose-thumb to
this being therapeutically correct all the time in relationships. You know,
this idea of, `Oh, no, you can't change for anyone. You must only change for
yourself,' and blah--`No one can make you happy,' you know. I thought, `Well,
that's not really the way the human heart works a lot of times.' And, you know,
it was a rebellion. And, also, you know, I do love obsession, and I
particularly love erotic obsessions. That's really what this song's about.
GROSS: OK. So this is Rosanne Cash's song "I'll Change For You" sung by
Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle from her latest CD "Rules of Travel."
(Soundbite of "I'll Change For You")
Ms. CASH: (Singing) I'll change for you. I'll change for you. I'll change for
you. I'll turn night into day. And I'll change for you...
Mr. STEVE EARLE: (Singing) I don't care what the books say.
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Oh, I'll change for you.
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) And I don't care what my friends say.
Ms. CASH: (Singing) I'll change for you, and I won't make you pay.
Mr. EARLE and Ms. CASH: (Singing) 'Cause everything reminds me of you: a baby's
feet, an old man's smile, silent scream, a lover's cry.
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Till I can't do nothing but change for you.
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) And all the rules that were lies.
Ms. CASH: Well, I'll change for you.
GROSS: Rosanne Cash with Steve Earle from Rosanne Cash's latest CD, "Rules of
Well, this is a record you almost didn't get to make because you had a polyp on
your vocal cords that...
Ms. CASH: Right.
GROSS: ...affected your talking and singing for--What?--a couple of years?
Ms. CASH: Two and a half, going on three years I lost my voice, right.
GROSS: How much of it did you lose?
Ms. CASH: All of it. I sounded like Tom Waits with laryngitis. You know, some
days I couldn't even speak. It was related to pregnancy. I got the polyps
when I was four or five months pregnant, and we didn't know it was related to
pregnancy. My doctor had not heard of that. And she did some research on it
and found that it was possible. I was scheduled for surgery, and so she
canceled it and she said, `I just want to wait and see what happens after you
have the baby, after you stop nursing, once you're back to normal.' And, sure
enough, about six months after I stopped nursing, the polyps went away.
GROSS: So you couldn't sing and you could barely talk?
Ms. CASH: That's right.
GROSS: I mean, what did you do to communicate?
Ms. CASH: Well, I would kind of squeak out, you know, this hoarse, kind of
froggy voice. And I definitely couldn't yell at my kids. That was very
disturbing. But, no, the most disturbing was I couldn't sing lullabies to this
newborn. That was very sad.
GROSS: But you probably just couldn't pass the time by talking to people who
you liked either?
Ms. CASH: Yeah, it was torture to be on the phone. In fact, that's kind of
been a holdover since I lost my voice--is I really don't like talking on the
GROSS: Do you start to feel erased after a while because, I mean, part of what
defines you is what you say to people? They don't even know what you think
unless you tell them.
Ms. CASH: Well, that's very insightful, Terry. I did. That is exactly the
right word, erased. I started to feel like I was nothing, that I was just not
important, that I had no opinions because I couldn't express them, that I had
no means of expression and I didn't count in the world. I mean, I really had a
full-blown identity crisis in the second year of losing my voice. The first
year I wasn't paying attention too much because I had a new baby. The second
year it was kind of a crisis.
GROSS: Do you sing any differently than you did before?
Ms. CASH: I think I do sing differently, and I can't tell you exactly how. I
feel less anxiety when I'm singing. I feel less of a need to monitor myself.
You know, `How's my pitch? OK, how am I going to get to that note? Is this
working? Is there some scratchiness there?' You know, all of that kind of
continual monitoring, which drives me crazy, I've let go of most of that.
GROSS: Why? Why do you think you did?
Ms. CASH: Because I had this realization when I lost my voice that I had been
taking for granted and, in fact, I'd kind of been abusing something that was
really precious. And I thought to myself, `If I get my voice back, I'm not
going to take back the anxiety. I'm going to try to experience the joy of it.'
And I did. I feel like I did. And, you know, it was a classic thing of you
don't realize what you have until you lose it, and I realized how important it
was to me. The sense of loss was tremendous, so much greater than I imagined
it would be, when I couldn't sing.
GROSS: So when you go out to perform on stage now, are you worried about
whether your voice will be there, or are you confident that it will be?
Ms. CASH: No, sometimes I'm worried. You know, sometimes I go through, `Well,
what if the polyp comes back?' I mean, you know, I'm obsessive by nature, I
told you, so I do go through it. But once I get out there, I can let go more
than I used to be able to do.
GROSS: Do you think your songwriting has been changed by the whole experience?
Ms. CASH: My songwriting has definitely been changed by this and mainly because
I didn't write any songs while I had lost my voice. And I started writing a
lot of prose, and I wrote for New York Magazine and I wrote for The New York
Times Magazine and Oxford American, and even Martha Stewart Living I wrote a
piece on lullabies and lots of other periodicals. And I edited a book of
songwriters' prose, and, you know, I was doing a lot of prose, and it changed
me as a songwriter, definitely. It gave me a wider sandbox to play in, in a
GROSS: In what way?
Ms. CASH: Well, you know, as a songwriter, you're bound to melody, you're bound
to a rhyme scheme, you're bound to a three- or four-minute format, you know.
And usually because I'm a very structured person, I really loved that. I love
knowing the perimeters and setting up the internal rules of each song and then
just staying in that. It feels very safe, and, you know, I have all the
freedom within that box. But when writing prose, you know, it's a lot of rope
to hang yourself with, but it's also a lot of freedom and relief. There's no
rhyme. There's melody, but it's very subtle. You know, you can go on as long
as you want. You don't have to stop after three minutes. So I brought some of
that freedom back to songwriting, I think. At least it feels like I did.
GROSS: Well, Rosanne Cash, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. CASH: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.
DAVIES: Rosanne Cash recorded in June 2003. She'll release a new album called
"Black Cadillac" in late January. The album is dedicated to the memory of
Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, who was Johnny
Cash's first wife and Rosanne's mother. This song is called "House on the
Lake" about the house where Johnny and June settled down together. I'm Dave
Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "House on the Lake")
Ms. CASH: (Singing) Well, I miss the sounds of Tennessee, and the smell of
heavy rain draws us in the garden, the laugh before the pain. But I hear his
voice close in my ear. I see her smile and wave. I blink, and while my eyes
are closed, they both have gone away. Blue ...(unintelligible), wooden limbs,
there's nothing left to take. But the loving years are not for sale in our old
house on the lake. Well, I'm going down to New Orleans 'cause we both are
sinking fast. And I'll stare into a bourbon moon. Let's see how long we last.
But I hear his voice farther down...
Mr. CASH: (Singing) Some glad morning when this life is over, I'll fly away.
DAVIES: Johnny Cash alone with his guitar playing some of his favorite songs.
Coming up, producer Rick Rubin tells us about their collaborations.
Mr. CASH: (Singing) I'll fly away. I'll fly away. Oh, glory, I'll fly away.
When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away. Just a few more weary days
and then I'll fly away to that land where joy will never end. I'll fly away.
I'll fly away. Oh, glory, I'll fly away. When I died, hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away. Oh, I'll...
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Before Johnny Cash died in September 2003, he and his record producer Rick
Rubin had chosen the recordings for a five-CD box set called "Unearthed." It
was released in 2004. We're going to listen to and talk about some of the
music with producer Rick Rubin. Cash and Rubin seemed like an unlikely pair
when they started working together in 1993; Cash, the aging country music star,
and Rubin, a producer best known for his work with hip-hop and heavy metal
bands. But many people consider their first collaboration, the 1994 CD
"American Recordings," to be Cash's finest work, Johnny Cash, alone with his
guitar, playing some of his favorite tunes.
For the albums they made together, Rubin encouraged Cash to record not just his
favorite songs, but some of it might have seemed out of character for him,
including music by Neil Young, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. This helped
introduce Cash to younger listeners. The five-CD box set "Unearthed" collects
many previously unreleased tracks from their sessions together. Before we hear
from Rubin, let's hear what Johnny Cash had to say when Rubin first suggested
they work together.
(Soundbite of 1997 interview)
Mr. JOHNNY CASH: Well, 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 to 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 on the album.' So without him saying I want to record you
on a recent album, 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.
DAVIES: That's from Terry's interview with Johnny Cash in 1997. Now let's hear
her interview with Rick Rubin recorded in 2004.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Well, let's start with something from the CD. There's five CDs. Let's start
with something from the first CD, and this is a song called "If I Give My
Soul." It's a song written by Billy Joe Shaver. Is this a song that Johnny
Cash selected to record?
Mr. RICK RUBIN (Record Producer): Yes, it was.
GROSS: Why did he want to choose it?
Mr. RUBIN: He said Billy Joe Shaver was one of his favorite songwriters, and he
just felt that the lyrics suited him and he felt a connection with the song.
GROSS: Did you connect with the song?
Mr. RUBIN: I liked it quite a bit.
GROSS: I like it, too. I guess that's why I'm choosing it. It's a great song
about a broken man bargaining with God for the most important things a mortal
needs and wants. This recording starts with Johnny Cash saying, `Get off the
stage, Cash.' What's that about?
Mr. RUBIN: The recording was made at a time when Johnny was still touring, and
he came to the session just from being on tour. And the head space and
performance aspect of presenting a song to a large audience is very different
than getting an intimate, personal recording. And he had sung the song once
before, the one that's on the box, and it felt like it was being performed for
an audience and it felt a little disconnected. I said that to him, that it
sounded like he was singing to an audience and not making it personal, and he
said to himself, `Get offstage, Cash,' and then did the version that we hear.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Johnny Cash, "If I Give My Soul," a song
by Billy Joe Shaver.
(Soundbite of "If I Give My Soul")
Mr. JOHNNY CASH: Get offstage, Cash. OK?
(Singing) Down a dangerous road, I have come to where I'm standin' with a heavy
heart and my hat clutched in my hand. Such a foolish man, God ain't known no
greater sinner. I have come in search of Jesus hopin' he will understand. If
I give my soul, will he clean these clothes I'm wearin'? If I give my soul,
will he put new boots on my feet? If I bow my head and beg God for his
forgiveness, will he breathe new life within me and bring her back to me? I
had a woman once...
GROSS: That's "If I Give My Soul" from the new Johnny Cash box set,
"Unearthed." My guest is Rick Rubin, who produced the last series of Johnny
Cash's recordings, the "American Recordings" series. And together, Cash and
Rubin put together this new box set of sessions that were unreleased from that
series of recordings.
Rick Rubin, what did Johnny Cash's music mean to you before you met him?
Mr. RUBIN: Well, I don't know if it was so much his music, per se, that drew me
to him. It was more his overall persona. And obviously, I love his music, but
his attraction was greater than music. There's just something about him. It's
hard to explain, hard to explain.
GROSS: What did you think of that persona as being?
Mr. RUBIN: Rebellious, honest, divided.
GROSS: How divided?
Mr. RUBIN: Well, there was clearly a side of him that was spiritual and
religious, and there was another side that was dark and drug-using. And he had
a--and he really lived an extreme life in different directions.
GROSS: So how did you end up meeting him?
Mr. RUBIN: I went to see him perform--I believe it was somewhere in Orange
County--and we met after the show. And the show was fantastic. It was the
first time I'd ever seen him perform live. And we met backstage after the show
and just talked about music.
GROSS: Did you meet him with the idea of proposing a series of recordings to
Mr. RUBIN: I met him with the idea of potentially working together, but I
didn't know where it was going to go. And I didn't have any expectation of
what it could or should be. It just felt like the idea of connecting was a
GROSS: And can you talk a little bit about how that evolved into the "American
Mr. RUBIN: Well, we didn't have a plan really, and that's normally the case
with the albums I make. We try to really find what it's supposed to be through
experimentation, and with Johnny we did that. We tried a lot of different
things before we settled on what that first album was, and some of those
experiments on the way are on the box set.
GROSS: What was the process like of going through songs and figuring out what
he should record?
Mr. RUBIN: He would send me songs that he liked and I would send him songs that
I liked, and we would compare notes and discuss them and talk about why we
liked them. And sometimes I would send him, you know, a CD with three songs;
sometimes I'd send him 30 songs. And he would always call and say, `Well, I
like this. I don't like this. I love this. I can't wait to record this. I
don't really understand this.' Sometimes he'd ask, `What is it about this one
that you like?' And we'd talk them through and ultimately, he would pick the
ones that just resonated with him.
And there were cases where I would--if there were ones that I felt strongly
about, I might make a stronger case, although that rarely happened. "Hurt" was
one of those songs where I think if I would have just sent that song to him in
the context of a CD of 30 songs, I don't know that he would have picked it.
But when I did send it to him, I think I explained that I really felt that that
one had the potential to be really, really special.
GROSS: Now with "Hurt," it's--in a way, you know, it's a song about somebody
who's a cutter, you know, who cuts themselves. And it's the kind of cutting
where, you know, maybe pain's better than feeling nothing, and it is a kind of
teen-age phenomenon. What did Johnny Cash feel, you know, at his age and with
all that he's gone through in his life--feeling a song that has such a kind of
teen-age point of view about pain?
Mr. RUBIN: It's interesting that you say that because most people who hear the
song assume that he wrote it when they hear him singing it.
Mr. RUBIN: I don't think that he saw it as a teen-aged point of view. I think
he saw it as a drug song and ultimately an anti-drug song because it was so...
Mr. RUBIN: ...there was such despair in it. But he took the needle remark to
be a drug reference.
GROSS: Well, why don't we play the Nine Inch Nails version and the Johnny Cash
version back to back?
Mr. RUBIN: OK.
GROSS: And this is "Hurt."
(Soundbite of "Hurt")
Mr. TRENT REZNOR (Nine Inch Nails): (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I
still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real. The needle tears
a hole, the old familiar sting. Try to kill it all away, but I remember
(Soundbite of "Hurt")
Mr. CASH: (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the
pain, the only thing that's real. The needle tears a hole, the old familiar
sting. Try to kill it all away, but I remember everything. What have I
become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you
could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you
DAVIES: That's Johnny Cash's version of the song "Hurt."
We'll get back to Terry's interview with Rick Rubin, who produced Cash's
recordings during the last 10 years of Cash's life.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Rick Rubin recorded in 2004.
He was Johnny Cash's record producer from 1993 until Cash's death. The five-CD
box set "Unearthed" collects many previously unreleased tracks from their
sessions together. Here's a spiritual Cash recorded on the collection.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. CASH: (Singing) Once my soul was astray from the heavenly way. I was
wretched and as 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.
GROSS: One of the CDs on 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 had 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. RUBIN: 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. And he was real excited about the idea and would just go through the
hymn book and just pick the ones that really touched him and that he remembered
and had the best feelings for. And in the book that comes with the box set, he
talks about each of the songs and what his connection to them were and why he
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
felt like his singing was really--he could take a song and make it a devotional
song even when it wasn't originally written that way. An example of that was
the Roberta Flack song.
GROSS: Oh, "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face"?
Mr. RUBIN: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Actually, she didn't write
it, but she made it famous. And when we did that song with Johnny, the goal of
it was to perform it as if he were singing the song to God...
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. RUBIN: ...and to take this love song and make it into a spiritual song. And
he loved that, and again, it came really natural to him. It seemed like his
devotion for life came from his devotion for God.
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--was when it became apparent that he was not
GROSS: How did it look? 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 had 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
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 have been able to
record so much.
GROSS: Was he self-conscious about how his voice changed toward the end when he
was sicker and weaker and you can really hear it in his voice?
Mr. RUBIN: He was. He was concerned, and some days, he would really question
it. And then other days, he would sing really well, and he'd hear it and think
that he was proud of it. And other days, he would hear himself and feel like,
`This isn't good enough,' and he would beat himself up about it. But we would
sing things over and over until he was satisfied, until he loved them.
GROSS: I thought I'd play another track that's on the new boxed set
"Unearthed," and this is one of the previously unreleased tracks. And you can
hear that age and sickness in his voice. His voice is very weak. It's still a
beautiful recording. And this is a Stephen Foster song called "Hard Times."
Can you talk about why he chose to record this song?
Mr. RUBIN: I think he liked the idea of spanning time musically. And the fact
that we were doing new songs like "Hurt" and an old song like a Stephen Foster
song from the late 1800s, he liked the idea of kind of the history of music and
participating in it from all different aspects and from all different periods.
GROSS: This is "Hard Times," sung by Johnny Cash and included on the new CD
(Soundbite of "Hard Times")
Mr. CASH: (Singing) Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
while we all suffer sorrow with the poor. There's a song that will linger
forever in our ears. Oh, hard times, come again no more. It's a song, a sigh
of the weary. Hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have
lingered around my cabin door. Oh, hard times, come again no more. While we
seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting
at the door. But though their voices now are silent, their pleading looks
still say, `Oh, hard times, come again no more.' It's a song, a sigh, of the
weary. Hard times, hard times...
DAVIES: Johnny Cash.
We'll get back to Terry's interview with Rick Rubin, who was Cash's record
producer, after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Rick Rubin, who was
Johnny Cash's record producer in the last decade of Cash's life.
GROSS: We've been talking about Johnny Cash's illness. How did he take it when
his wife, June Carter Cash, died just a few months before he did? I mean, a
lot of people just assumed that it was hard for him to hang on after that.
Mr. RUBIN: I think that's true, and it really affected him deeply. I spoke to
him the day she passed. He was in the hospital, and he said that he had
suffered so much pain in his life, but nothing really prepared him for this,
and nothing felt as bad as this. He was really suffering, and on that call, he
told me he wanted to work every day starting as soon as he could because he
didn't feel like he could go on living if he didn't have something to focus on
because if he sat around and thought about June, he would die.
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, 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 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 and 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.
GROSS: Rick Rubin, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. RUBIN: My pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Rick Rubin speaking with Terry Gross in 2004.
He produced Johnny Cash's recordings during the last 10 years of the singer's
life. The Cash box set "Unearthed" features many previously unreleased
recordings from their collaboration.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of "You Are My Sunshine")
Mr. CASH: (Singing) The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held
you in my arms. When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken, so I bowed my head and I
cried. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies
are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my