A slight diversion


Over the past few months I have increasingly become aware of the greatness of the last work of Johnny Cash. I don't much like country and western, and Cash was always regarded as a bit twee in my youth. But recently I came across what is surely one of the greatest of all music videos - "Hurt" (below the fold). It is the last thing Cash released before his death, and despite his age and obvious impending death he interprets a Nine Inch Nails song, of all things, in absolutely the only way it can be, as an American great rural song.

Then I discover that he's also done Sting's "I Hung My Head" and made a truly great cowboy song out of that, and to top it off, a Nick Cave song: "The Mercy Seat" and interpreted it in a personal way as Cave did not. For those who do not know, Nick Cave is Australia's best poet, who happens to be a singer in an international, band the Bad Seeds (and has a new album with a really great title song, Dig Lazarus Dig!).

I like the connections here: Cash, NiN, Cave, and all the other great stuff. I am somewhat sad that I didn't discover this Cash, the artist, earlier, but better late than never.


More like this

Cash's later work is brilliant. I listen to it regularly. I especially like his version of Hank William's "I'm so Lonesome I could Cry" (with Nick Cave singing backup), and also "Give my Love to Rose".

Like rap, country music has a bad reputation among sophisticated audiences, but when done right both music genres can be really beautiful music.

I came across Johnny Cash's version of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" completely by accident a couple of years back, and it quickly shifted into high rotation. It's well worth a listen.

My thoughts exactly. I occasionally heard Johnny Cash growing up -- my Dad used to listen to that kind of stuff when I was real little. But I discovered him myself about a year or two ago, and blown away by his recent stuff, "Hurt", "I Hung My Head", "The Man Comes Around", ...

I like it when a cover is better than the original. And Cash does it multiple times.

It also happens I had, at the time, a 3-year-old who was "really into trains", and you can put together 2 full CDs worth of nothing but train songs by johnny cash. Those started to grow on me too. I think I'm my dad now.

And, speaking of Trent Reznor, ever seen the trent reznor prize for tricky embedding? Classic language log.


Hurt is the song that got me listening to Johnny Cash as well. It is one of the most powerful songs I've heard. All of the songs listed above are among my favorites too.

~ Nick

Cash, like all the great artists, never sat comfortably in any genre. From his earliest recordings onward, he dipped into all sorts of wells; blues, blue-grass, country, folk, rockabilly, rock and roll, and while he went through something of an artistic famine in the 1970s and 1980s, by the 1990s, with Rick Ruben's guidance, he began tapping into the newer musical movements like grunge.

If you want to get a real good feel for Cash, check out the two live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, probably two of the best live recordings ever made. Yes, there's a lot of country there, but Cash was utterly different than his contemporaries. I hesitate to even call him a country artist. He was never really part of the Nashville scene, and really was an outsider. He also was from early on a man who championed unpopular causes; the plight of the Native American was something very near and dear to his heart, as was his playing at prisons. He even put Pete Seeger on his own variety show in the early 1970s, braving a lash back both from the networks and from his own audience.

By Aaron Clausen (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

Cash's version of Hurt is great. John, did you notice it on the adds about child abuse a few years back?

By Brian English (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

I think that's where I heard it first.

By John S. Wilkins (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

"twee"? country and western? dude, you are hopeless.

(sigh) let's start with the easy stuff.

"Bull Rider"

first you gotta wanna get off bad enough to wanna get on him in the first place

listen to that one for awhile and then we'll move on to the next one...

In my youth, I said! Back when you were either a Beatles or a Stones fan, and not both. When Gabriel was still in Genesis. Before I discovered Fusion.

Everyone's entitled to the prejudices of their youth, OK?

By John S. Wilkins (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

...country music has a bad reputation among sophisticated audiences, but when done right ... can be really beautiful music.


If you want to get a real good feel for Cash, check out the two live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, probably two of the best live recordings ever made.


He was never really part of the Nashville scene, and really was an outsider.

As a key member of the Carter/Clash Clan you can't get more Nashville than Johnny Cash but always the number one outsider. Cash is the original Outlaw and as such a true representative of a great sub-genre of country music; Willy, Waylon, Townes, Steve Earl, Lyle Lovett...

Lots of great country rock out there too; Poco, New Riders, The Dead...

Let us not forget the joys of Blue Grass and all its modern derivatives New Grass, Jazz Grass, Psycho Grass, Dawg Music...

Mr Wilkins by closing your mind to Country you have closed it to a deep well of pure clear refreshment for the soul and if you want to know just how closely related country and soul are go listen to Run C & W.

I quote Cicero: De gustibus non est disputandum. My tastes are what they are (and it seems folk have trouble noting that I haven't closed my mind to C&W - both kinds of music! - but that I merely do not like it).

By John S. Wilkins (not verified) on 06 Apr 2008 #permalink

All I remembered about Johnny Cash from my youth was "A boy named Sue", maybe something about him "stealing songs", some drug abuse, and perhaps something about him being illiterate.

"Hurt" sent shivers down my spine and the video still drives me to tears to this day. His live prison albums are amazing. As a rule, I generally can't stand country music but J.C. (Johnny Cash, *not* the other one!) is great at the appropriate time.

By franz dibbler (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

Have to agree with Christopher Taylor: Cash's 'Personal Jesus' is a masterpiece. I don't think he realised that the original Depeche Mode version was deeply ironic.

'When the Man Comes Around' is also brilliant: all about the Book of Revelations. Utter nonsense, of course, but brilliant nevertheless.

I was a Johnny Cash fan before it was hip to be a Johnny Cash fan (which naturally makes me hipper than thou). ;)

If you get a chance, check out his recordings of:

"Dark as a Dungeon"
"When the Roses Bloom Again"
"Long Black Veil"

By devolution (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

I was driving down the freeway one day and a Johnny Cash song came on the radio. It doesn't matter which one, so many are wonderful. I soon realized that I was getting such "goose-flesh" that my leg hairs were actually lifting my (thin)cotton skirt up. I'm not sure I've explained that right, but it was so cool.

By Susan Silberstein (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

Yes, I never much liked c and w (all that whiny "O I lost my love" stuff), but I made an exception for Cash (and Marty Robbins VERY early on, I'm now a little ashamed to say). Liked Cash's early things like Walk the Line, Guns to Town, etc. Thanks for the info - I must seek out the later ones you mention.

Nick Cave Australia's best poet? - you're being provocative, surely. "Rock poet" perhaps.

Otherwise, what about real poets like Hope, Wright, etc, etc.

By John Monfries (not verified) on 07 Apr 2008 #permalink

America I-IV are astounding albums, particularly I and IV. They are as honest and truthful music as I know of. But that is been true about Johnny Cash. And so, yes, his "middle"
period, when he had just "found" Jesus was pretty bland. But the earlier stuff was amazing as well. Several songs on the final albums were re-makes of songs he was known for ("Country Trash", "Give my love to Rose"). It is very worthwhile to listen to both versions.

Regarding Cash being "Twee" I know what you mean. I discovered, to my surprise and horror, that I am a country music fan. But real country: Lucinda, Stanley Bros, Gillian Welch, Cater Family, etc.

Anyway, I have almost everything he ever recorded so if you ever make it back to NYC you can have a listen. And a bed. We have a real sized apartment these days.

By Matt Silb (not verified) on 08 Apr 2008 #permalink

What is "twee"?

Also, the American Recording series turned a lot of people onto Cash that were "anti-country" before then. That was Rick Rubin's goal. He was the producer. He is a famous producer. He works magic really.

And while Cash can be pretty country, there is a lot of earlier stuff that you might like as well. And something that a lot of people don't realize is that Cash didn't write a lot of his songs. He played a ton of covers. Did you know Boy Named Sue was written by Shel Silverstein? Not surprising once you here it I guess, but interesting.

I heard one of Johnny Cash's last interviews on NPR. He had been getting flack from some country stars for doing the NIN and Nick Cave stuff. But he talked about the many old timers in the 50's and 60's who lost it to drugs and alcohol and said,"Maybe if we'd had songs like Hurt back then, we wouldn't have lost so many". A real class act, he was hardcore when hardcore wasn't even conceivably cool!

I recall Johnny guest starring in a Columbo episode back in the 1970s. He played a gospel music star who was managed by his wife. As I recall, he kills her in a staged plane crash because he wants to "break out" of gospel, and do other things.

Fast forward to "Hurt", "Personal Jesus", etc.

Funny how things go. We will miss you, Man in Black.

By BobbyEarle (not verified) on 16 Apr 2008 #permalink