Recently, $ingapore school children attended a camp to learn about intellectual property. It's the sort of work the music industry does to retard the music culture. No where in their brains does it occur to them that they should run music-exposure workshops on all the releases they don't care to put out. Johnny Cash was dumped by CBS and Mercury/Polygram after a lengthy career as a country music legend. And yes, he is a legend as his posthumous box set, Unearthed [American Records], reveals. Reviewed by Philip Cheah.


Johnny Cash was dumped by CBS and Mercury/Polygram after a lengthy career as a country music legend. As Cash said: "Demographics. They were always ramming that stuff down my throat." In the '90s, rap and rock producer Rick Rubin signed him on his American Recordings label. After four albums, Cash died last September at 71 years, and Unearthed, a five-CD box set of unreleased tracks, was released last November.

When the first album and then the second album won Grammy awards, Cash and Rubin took out a full-page ad in Billboard showing Cash in 1969 with his middle finger right up in front of the camera lens. The words read: "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music community and country radio for your support." It was a "fuck-you" to the music industry, which didn't care about the music. Fellow musicians were so stirred by the sentiment (they too felt fucked over by the music industry) that they started calling Rubin to get posters of the ad.

Anyway, to get back to demographics, the revival of Cash at the age of 61 years is a parable about the power of heartfelt music. No way would record industry types imagine that Johnny Cash could cover a Nine Inch Nails song (Hurt) or Glenn Danzig (Thirteen) or Soundgarden (Rusty Cage). Yet he did and constantly during the recordings, music outlaws such as punk rocker Joe Strummer to cult figure Nick Cave would visit him and end up recording duets.

The first three discs of the box set start out with Cash solo with just his guitar reinterpreting songs that he has been famous for - Long Black Veil and Flesh and Blood. In fact, they are demos in spirit. And this became the basis for American Recordings, Cash's debut on Rubin's label. Then other musicians start joining him, most importantly Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who became the backing band for the second album, Unchained. It's important to note that Cash can turn any song into his song, as long as he feels that he's telling the story. While he initially resisted covering Neil Young's Pocahontas because he couldn't connect with Young's surreal lyrics, he finally connected with the song's intensity and mood. It's a gem and you can finally hear it now.

By the third disc, you can hear Cash's health deteriorating in his trembling vocal. But that makes the songs even more heartbreaking. His cover of Jim Webb's Wichita Lineman has him barely able to hit the high notes but you can feel him in the song "searching for another overload." And when he duets with Joe Strummer on Bob Marley's Redemption Song, you can feel Cash summing up his whole career.

The shadow of death looms ominously on disc four, which has Cash singing all the hymns that he grew up with. Almost every track rings of his own death. And Cash picks all the songs that he sang for his brother, Jack's funeral, and the song he sang on his father's deathbed. The final disc sums up the best tracks on Rubin's Cash releases.

Music is that intangible. And it's that powerful. When the music industry tells you that the future is downloading songs, you know that they have given up on music as culture. You know that they wouldn't have a clue about how to love an artist like Johnny Cash.




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