Johnny Cash friend and producer, Rick Rubin, talks about his years with a legend

By Russell Hall
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Few people were as close to Johnny Cash as Rick Rubin. Beginning with the 1994 album “American Recordings,” Mr. Rubin produced and directed a series of albums that rank among the most seminal of Cash’s career. At the time Cash died in September 2003, he and Mr. Rubin were putting the final touches on a boxed set culled from their countless sessions together. Given the variety of books written about Cash in just the past year, it seemed a good time to talk with Mr. Rubin about his work with the legendary singer.Russell Hall: Was there something in particular that drew you to Johnny Cash, something that made you feel you were the person to produce him?Rick Rubin: I think it came from the idea that, at that point in my career, I had worked pretty much exclusively with young artists, either making their first album or their second album. There might have been minor exceptions to that, but I really felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work.

RH: How did you arrive at the decision that “American Recordings,” the first Cash album you produced, should be as stripped down as it was?

RR: That took some time. We didn’t go into it with any preconceived idea of what that first album should be. We recorded many different ways, with different bands and different players and different styles. We were just trying to find our way. The first thing we did were acoustic demos, in my living room. Ultimately, after many experiments, we kind of looked at each other and decided that we liked the acoustic stuff — those first demos — better than any of the other experiments we tried.

RH: How comfortable was Cash with that approach — with being sort of out there, naked, in that way?

RR: I think he had mixed feelings about that. I know there was a part of him that was excited about it, and that always wanted to do it. But there was another part of him that was insecure about it, and felt, “Well, if they don’t like this, I’m really in trouble, because this is really me.””

RH: He seemed especially gifted at imbuing songs with a multiplicity of meaning.

RR: Well, I think he tried to make them all his own. I don’t think he was especially concerned with what the writer’s original intention was. It was a question of, “How does this song hit me, and how can I convey that mood, or the emotion that I feel?” He was really a master at taking a song — even a song you might’ve heard many times in your life — and imbuing it with a kind of story-teller mentality. Again, even if you had heard a particular song your whole life, when he sang it, all of a sudden you understood it, or thought about the words in a different way.

RH: What role did you play in helping him communicate that?

RR: Most of the time he just had it. Sometimes, though, we had discussions about what the goal was, or about what was trying to be accomplished within a song. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which we recorded for the last album, is a love song, but I asked him to not sing it as a love song to a person, but as a love song to God. That idea really excited him, and it gave him a point of view. Sometimes, before starting a song, I would just say, “Think about this,” whatever that might be. The idea was to give something a new point of view, or give it a touchstone.

RH: A lot of people have said Cash had an intimidating presence, but that he also had a gift for putting people at ease.

RR: He did that with everyone. I don’t know if he was aware of the magnitude of his presence, but pretty much anybody who came into contact with him was intimidated by him. But he was just such a humble person; in a few lines of casual conversation he was able to make everyone feel okay. Again, I don’t know how much of that was pre-planned, or done on purpose, but I saw it happen a lot.

RH: You’ve said elsewhere that he became confused when he first began to show signs of becoming ill, because he didn’t understand what was happening to him. How did that manifest itself?

RR: I know he wanted to be able to do more than he was physically able to do. He couldn’t understand why one day he would come in and be able to sing great, and feel good, and then the next day he would come in and not be able to catch his breath, or would have to lie down between takes. This was all new to him, and it was very difficult for him to deal with.

RH: Given the changes that were happening to his voice, was he still able to be satisfied with a song, once the work was done?

RR: He was, but I know there were times when he wished his voice was better. Sometimes he felt embarrassed, and it really took the people around him to say, “This is beautiful, and we love it.” And again, he trusted the people who were saying that, because we really did feel that way. But there were times, I know, when he felt a little insecure about his voice, and wished he sounded stronger.

RH: Have you given a lot of thought to what made the relationship between you and him special, and different?

RR: I guess it was that the goals were really noble goals. We both wanted to do the best work we could, and there was very little in the way of “commercial” thoughts. It was really about the art, and about the love of great songs. My life was definitely made better by having him as my friend. He was just a beautiful man.

One Response to “Johnny Cash friend and producer, Rick Rubin, talks about his years with a legend”

  1. The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show (1969-1971)

    Legendary Country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash hosted the unique «Johnny Cash TV Show» from 1969 until 1971. It was shown on the US network ABC. Cash not only presented country musicians. He also invited singer/songwriters, folk, rock, rhythm …

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