In March 1997, Johnny Cash headed to Los Angeles to perform his country-rock cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Meanwhile, the song’s writer, Chris Cornell, was up in Seattle, dealing with the tensions that would eventually lead to his band’s temporary breakup one month later. Cornell died at age 52 on Wednesday from an apparent suicide.
Cash had recorded “Rusty Cage” on 1996’s Unchained, a Grammy-winning album featuring one of his finest backing bands to date. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Marty Stuart were the Man in Black’s main supporters throughout the record, with Flea, Mick Fleetwood and Lindsey Buckingham all making cameos on select tracks. For the Tonight Show performance, though, Cash largely stuck to his own touring band, adding Stuart – once a full-fledged member of the group, before leaving in 1985 to focus on his solo career – to the mix.
In the video above, Cash and company perform “Rusty Cage” as a roadhouse roots-rocker, finding the middle ground between Soundgarden’s alt-metal crunch and Unchained‘s countryfied swagger. Stuart punctuates each chorus with ringing chords on his Telecaster, while Cash stands calmly and confidently at the microphone, bolstered by a career resurgence that began several years earlier with his first Rick Rubin-produced album, American Recordings.
“After the success of the first record, Johnny was definitely more open to trying new things,” Rubin told Rolling Stone Country in 2016 of suggesting “Rusty Cage” to Cash. “The songs just had to be presented in a digestible, relatable version for him.”
Stuart and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell helped iron out the track’s acoustic arrangement during the final hours of a long recording session, with Rubin “reciting the words like a tone poem.” Cash approved of the “Rusty Cage” reworking and took his own stab at the song, which eventually earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Chris Cornell performed “Rusty Cage” for the final time last night, with the song kicking off Soundgarden’s encore during a headlining performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.