Johnny Cash's 'Unchained' at 20: Inside the Making of a Masterpiece

Producer Rick Rubin and Marty Stuart recall the story of the Man in Black's mesmerizing 1996 album

Johnny Cash performs onstage in 1995, a year before releasing his 'Unchained' album. Credit: Bob King/Getty

"To hear Johnny Cash sing a Jimmie Rodgers song towards the end of the 20th century in the middle of Los Angeles … it's almost like the spiritual clock of country music was reset during that song."

This is how singer-songwriter and country-music historian Marty Stuart frames the initial impact and enduring legacy of Unchained, the second installment in Johnny Cash's American album series. Produced by Rick Rubin and released in 1996, Unchained celebrates its 20-year anniversary this month.

Cash and Rubin first worked together for the release of 1994's American Recordings, an album of stark acoustic performances that featured only Cash's unmistakable voice and his deceptively simplistic guitar playing. The album's track list was an eclectic mix of Cash originals and inspired cover songs written by artists like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III.

At the time, Cash was widely viewed as a country music hellraiser-turned-has-been and Rubin was mostly known for producing noisier rock and hip-hop acts like Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer. While news of their partnership perplexed many, any doubts were dismantled when American Recordings was released in April of 1994. After the album's commercial and critical successes – it appeared on a wide variety of year-end "best of" lists and won the Best Contemporary Folk Album award at the 1995 Grammys – Cash and Rubin began discussing how to re-create the magic a second time.

"After the stark nature of the first album, the idea of making a different sounding album with the same kind of song selection process was the thought," Rubin tells Rolling Stone Country. But while Rubin and Cash's massive "everything's on the table" song-swapping process carried over from American Recordings, the tracks that made the cut would be augmented with a more vibrant, full-band treatment.

Rubin, however, didn't want just any group of musicians. "It was about finding the right band to record with Johnny who wouldn't simply sound like the band recordings he had done for the last 50 years," he says.

The producer set his sights set on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Rubin had recently produced Petty's acclaimed Wildflowers, which – while billed as a solo album – featured his fellow Heartbreakers: guitarist Mike Campbell, pianist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein and brand new drummer Steve Ferrone. According to Rubin, the decision to have them all become Cash's "backing band" for Unchained couldn't have been easier.

"I was working in the studio with Tom and brought up the idea of him playing bass on Unchained. He loved to play bass and he loved Cash, so he agreed," recalls the producer. "Mike had already done a bit of playing on some band experiments we had tried in getting to the solo acoustic vibe of the first American album and Johnny loved the experience of playing with him."

In a matter of happenstance, Stuart soon got onboard.

"It was the most unlikely of circumstances," says Stuart, describing the invitation to be a part of Unchained, which was presented to him after a cross-country plane ride with Cash from Nashville to Los Angeles. While coincidence had placed the two on the same flight, they were certainly not strangers – Stuart had been a part of Cash's band in the early Eighties and had previously been married to Cash's daughter Cindy. Getting off the plane, Cash asked Stuart, "Would you mind sticking around L.A. and working on some of these Rick Rubin sessions with me?" As Stuart tells the story, his response was birthed from the same mantra he had been using since his early days playing with Cash: "No matter what, when the Chief needs me, I go."

Stuart was already familiar with what Cash had been trying to capture with Rubin during this new chapter of his career. Before the first American album was released, Cash asked Stuart to his home. Stuart arrived and took a seat on the couch in Cash's office, where he was promptly handed a Coke and told, "Don't talk to me for the next 29 minutes." Cash picked up a guitar, played a string of songs for his one-man audience, and then asked, "So what do you think about my new album?" Stuart, awestruck, answered: "Just you, your guitar, and those songs? I think it's absolutely magic."

Stuart was expecting Unchained to be more of the same and was curious as to what Cash wanted him to contribute to the unadorned guitar-and-vocal concept. As surprising as the invitation had been, Stuart was in for another shock when he arrived at Sound City Studios for the first day of recording: the presence of Petty and the Heartbreakers.

"In that moment, we were all just Johnny Cash's band," says Stuart, recalling the moment they first plugged in behind the Man in Black.

"It was a fun and easy creative vibe," echoes Rubin. "The Heartbreakers are such a great band, especially with the added excitement of playing with Johnny and without the pressure of it being their own album. It was no risk and all fun. The players would all switch between instruments for whatever was needed for each song and it never seemed like work. The sessions felt like musician summer camp."

The sessions also afforded Cash the opportunity to take some daring musical risks.

"After the success of the first record, Johnny was definitely more open to trying new things," says Rubin. "The songs just had to be presented in a digestible, relatable version for him."

Eager to have Cash record some more unconventional fare, Rubin suggested Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," a radio hit from the Seattle grunge band's 1991 Badmotorfinger. But the song didn't quite fit the "digestible, relatable" criteria in its original form.

"I don't think he got it at all," Stuart says, recalling Cash's reaction to Rubin's pitch. But the producer believed in the song's potential enough that he asked Stuart and Campbell to craft a new version of "Rusty Cage" to present to Cash. The guitarists began working out a new groove, while, according to Stuart, Rubin "grabbed a microphone and started reciting the words like a tone poem." Cash was now able to find his way into the song and the final version became a celebrated cornerstone of Unchained, garnering Cash a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

As the inclusion of the Soundgarden track proves, the songs Cash and Rubin recorded for Unchained covered an even wider berth than those on American Recordings. A jaunty take on Beck's "Rowboat" kicks the album off in a wonderfully whimsical fashion, while a twangy, full-throttle run through the Geoff Mack/Hank Snow classic "I've Been Everywhere" closes the album with a reminder of how much fun Cash had when he was firing on all cylinders.

In between, Unchained holds some traditional country favorites (Jimmie Rodgers' "The One Rose"; the Louvin Brothers' "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea"; Roy Clark's "I Never Picked Cotton") and some deeply moving spirituals ("Meet Me in Heaven," "Spiritual" and the title track). Cash also reworked his old Sun Records hits "Country Boy" and "Mean-Eyed Cat," the latter of which he completed by penning a new verse, 41 years after first recording it.

As a nod to his session players' back catalog, Cash also cut a Petty song for Unchained. His wearied take on the title track to Petty's 1985 album Southern Accents cast the song in a brand new light.

"When Tom sang it as a young man, it had a wistful quality. Johnny’s version seemed more pointed, more old-world American," says Rubin, who is quick to note that not every one of his choices achieved the same result. "One song I really was excited about Johnny singing that we never got to record was Stevie Wonder's 'Place in the Sun.' I imagined it as a sad, slow yearning piece. More wanting than Stevie's hopeful rendition."

Along with Petty and the Heartbreakers, Unchained also included special guests Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood, playing guitar and percussion on the bouncy sing-along "Sea of Change," and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea contributing elegantly delicate bass to "Spiritual." Legendary guitarist Carl Perkins also attended the sessions, but his contribution, Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," didn’t appear until Cash's Unearthed box set was released in 2003.

Yet Cash's health was failing and it lent an air of gravitas over the sessions.

"The biggest issue on the project was that Johnny had just begun getting ill during the making of the album. He would get dizzy or tired and have to lie down in the studio. He had been misdiagnosed and was instructed to take strong medication for a disease he didn't have and it really took a toll on him," says Rubin.

"I hadn't been around him on a day-to-day basis since 1985," adds Stuart, "so it really got me when I saw him struggling to work for things that used to come to him for free.”

Listening to Unchained now, one can hear the initial cracks of age and sickness in Cash's famously thunderous voice. While some of the songs on Unchained showcase the trademark boom of his lower register, others like "Meet Me in Heaven" and "Unchained" reveal the humanity and fragility underneath his larger-than-life persona. "I am weak / Oh, I know I am vain / Take this weight from me/Let my spirit be unchained," he sings in a melancholy croon.

Stuart says it was the trust between Cash and Rubin and their faith in each other that allowed for those types of vulnerable yet otherworldly performances to be captured on Unchained. "Rick Rubin is to be commended because he loved Johnny and he took care of Johnny at a time in his life when nobody else would," he says. "Rubin got him out of the Nashville box and boiled him down beyond the myth to the essence of the boy from Arkansas with the God-given gifts that made him so special."

As Cash continued to record with Rubin in future years, both artist and producer learned how to navigate physical decline into musical transcendence. The duo hit their high-water mark with a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" on American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002 – released less than a year before Cash's death.

"Working with Johnny is one of the true gifts of my life. He was so thoughtful and humble, so wise and spiritual. I am so lucky to have had the years we did together," Rubin recalls. "You couldn't ask for a bigger inspiration."