Johnny Cash lost tapes should be untouched by new influences (2024)

Fans of Johnny Cash had much to look forward to with the announcement of Spotlight. What may be the final recordings from The Man in Black during a dark period before Rick Rubin lent a hand is historic. Cash had a fiery back-and-forth with record labels and the lack of spark in his career certainly had an impact on his material. Nowhere is this clearer than Spotlight, the recent single released to promote the album. If the writing on the wall needed confirmation, here it is. Our desire to hear everything from an artist whether it is of a releasable quality or not has led us to this point, where The Black Keys and opportunist artists can say they worked with the late, great country singer.

A hunger for the stop-gap performances which paved the road to American Recordings is understandable. What is not understandable is the methods used to bring it to life. Artificial intelligence and adaptation are slowly mixing into the same process. The Beatles used it for Now and Then to amplify existing spots of noise and to add instrumentals befitting of the artists no longer alive. Johnny Cash does not receive the same luxury on Songwriter. The Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach leaves his imprint on the track.

This is the disaster unfolding. The line between contemporary respect and historic revisionism is blurred in the best of works but never has it been so thoroughly crossed. For purists hoping to hear those crackling tapes and all the charms of a demo recording, there is nothing of the sort here. Cash had such a unique process for his music and his instrumentals. Removing that removes the man.

And it happens on Songwriter, a song which bears the usual charm of Johnny Cash but highlights the issue of this collection. John Carter Cash and David Ferguson followed the usual steps of overhauling demo tapes. They dusted off the old recordings and stripped them back to only Cash and his guitar. Amplifying them in the right way is crucial. None of the purists who wish to hear the fundamentals of these tracks hoped for a Cash and the Black Keys collaboration. Inviting the likes of Marty Stuart and Pete Abbott to flesh out the songs makes sense. They had connections to Cash. It is the same situation for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr giving Now and Then the seal of approval and taking a hands-on approach with a project they have intimate detail of.

What Auerbach or Matt Combs has to do with the intimacy of these Johnny Cash recordings is unknowable. It reflects poorly on those who found the tapes to admit their entry into what should be a sacred process. This is not for the sake of pure recordings but, as the eponymous song has evidenced, a matter of protection from influences unrelated to Cash and his work ethic. Modern country and classic tracks from the same genre are fundamentally different. It is a subtle change over decades which becomes clear when diving between Marty Robbins and Elvie Shane. Nothing about the electric guitar or stagnant percussion of this rings the usual charm of Cash. Excess to an already short piece.

Even snippets of work in their rudimentary form can find an audience with devoted fans. Bob Dylan has distributed songs of mere seconds, studio chatter and unfinished parts for decades and has received rightful praise. Not everything needs to be complete. Part of the charm is the unfinished nature of the project. The gaps of frustration are no longer capable of coming through because of a modern spin. Such is the case for Songwriter. John Carter Cash spoke highly of the project in its announcement.

With Stuart and Dave Roe involved, nothing could stop Songwriter from being what fans wanted – a dive into the unreleased classics. “They knew his energies, his movements, and they let him be the guide,” he said. “It was just playing with Johnny once again, and that’s what it was.” All well and good for those who knew and played with Cash. His collaborations with The Black Keys are yet uncovered.

This is not to stomp down the qualities of Auerbach. He has his skills, and they are put to good use in his projects elsewhere. But what of those others who found themselves so closely tied to Johnny Cash? Where is Willie Nelson or Rubin, even Kris Kristofferson or Bob Dylan? Is their seal of approval or respect not sought? No, and why should it? They may be links to the past for Cash fans but do their interpretations of his work, filled with the intimate knowledge of his life, benefit the remastering? Details of such a nature lead to infighting which boils the ultra-specifics of a song. Instead of this, what is needed is a sense of distance. Auerbach does not have the Cash connections and therefore comes in as a neutral party.

But there are neutral parties who add to the production and those who wish to take it over. Nothing bar the voice found on Songwriter can be considered anything remotely Johnny Cash-like. His unique style of playing was rarely replicated and the man who brought you Weight of Love is not a likely match for the country specifics Cash deployed time and again. It leaves a very large gap where the heart should be. No sense of earnestness or lessons learned can be brought to the surface. Johnny Cash and the fundamentals of his work, his ideas and thoughts of the time, are lost to adaptation. By his admission, Carter Cash has noted these recordings are from an intense period. Those who read Cash’s autobiography will know the dark hole the man found himself in.

Adding layers of contemporary musicians with their own, differing ideas of how best to proceed with preserving but also innovating the leftover scraps of a dead man is a poor idea. These are intimate, scrappy tracks of survival. Some were circling his brain for decades. Other songs were written at a tragic low, but there is a lack of respect for the moment of creative willpower. These songs had heart and now we cannot hear it beat. Carter Cash described the likes of Like a Soldier and Drive On, saying: “It’s something that he wrote after his first stint in a recovery centre – he felt like he was like a soldier getting over a war.” Where in drafting those contemporary musicians does Cash survive? His words so far are, like Out Among the Stars, lost to the hurried additions needing to be made in the hopes of capturing an audience quite content with what exists already.

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Johnny Cash lost tapes should be untouched by new influences (2024)
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