Johnny Cash is on the phone, calling from his office outside of Nashville in Hendersonville, Tenn., sounding strong and feeling fine. He has reason to be in high spirits. Less than a year ago, a nasty bout with pneumonia had him knocking on heaven’s door, but he’s battled his way back and now stands poised on the brink of his second major comeback of the decade. He’s currently recording a new album for American Recordings with Rick Rubin, the long-awaited follow-up to 1997’s Grammy-winning Unchained (and its equally lauded predecessor, 1994’s American Recordings). A fourth Rubin-produced effort, a gospel album, is in the can, while a new three-disc retrospective, Love God Murder, together with recent, expanded editions of his two seminal “prison” albums (1968’s At Folsom Prison and ’69’s At San Quentin) have shed fresh light on his singular, four-and-a-half-decade history as a recording artist and bona fide American icon.
The renewed interest in his career is well deserved, but on this morning, Cash, who turned sixty-eight in February, still seems to be taking it all in with an amused sense of wonder. “Sony sent me about two dozen box sets today,” he says with a soft chuckle. “They’re being very, very nice to me for some reason. I didn’t hear from them for many, many years, but now it seems after the success of the American records, Sony’s really interested again.”
So what was the genesis of Love God Murder?
Sony had the idea for three different theme albums — Johnny Cash Sings Love Songs, Johnny Cash Sings Gospel, and Johnny Cash Sings Prison Songs. I thought that was pretty cluttered, so I told them, “How about calling the albums Love, God and Murder? Cut right to the chase.” They liked the idea, and they came up with all these songs for the different ones, and I marked some of them out and added some that I liked better, and this is what the result was.
Did you go back through your whole catalog and cherry pick songs?
No. Well, actually yes I did. I had my discography. I was in the Caribbean, and I just checked out some other titles. I didn’t listen to anything — I don’t listen to my records except for when I’m making them. If I’m going to do them live, sometimes I’ll listen to them again — I keep going back to a line of Dylan’s: “I will know my song well before I start singing.” I do that once and awhile. But I pulled out some songs I liked, like “Mister Garfield,” and “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” which are my two favorites on the Murder album. I put those in there.
Did you have any say in picking your wife, June Carter, Bono and Quentin Tarantino to write the liner notes?
No, that was a surprise to me that they had contacted Bono and Quentin Tarantino. But these record companies and managers have a way of calling in your friends without your knowing about it. [Chuckles] Bono’s writing knocked me out — talking about Moses parting the Red Sea, that whole thing from Exodus that he commented on, and then how he brought it down to me. I thought that really was a nice piece of writing.
I’m told that the box set of all three albums is selling the best, but of the individual volumes, Murder is outselling Love and God like three to one. Does that surprise you?
No [laughs]. My biggest selling albums have been the prison albums.
What is it about the prison albums that still appeals to people so much?
I don’t know. You know, the biggest song of the nineteenth century was about Jesse James. The whole country was singing the praises of Jesse James. It’s always been an American theme to make heroes out of the criminals. Right or wrong, we’ve always done it. You know, it really is a crime in itself, but we do it. I think there’s a little bit of a criminal in all of us. Everybody’s done something they don’t want anybody to know about. Maybe that’s where it comes from.
Were you ever threatened with any form of censorship for your murder songs?
No. I didn’t ever have any resistance to them. They caused a lot of arguments and controversy. They still argue today about whether or not I was in prison myself, because of those songs. But I wasn’t. I’ve never been accused of a felony. I never spent time behind bars except for a few overnight jail times back in the Sixties . . . El Paso was my last time.
Let’s move on to the theme of God, which you don’t hear quite so much of these days. You grew up singing a lot of gospel and hymnals, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did. My first public singing was in church, when I was a boy. The gospel songs were always a part of my whole musical thing. I have a gospel album recorded with Rick Rubin for American [Recordings] that is probably going to be released sometime next year. That’s probably going to be called My Mother’s Hymn Book. It’s old country gospel songs with just me and a guitar.
Does any song on God represent a particularly trying time for you, faith wise?
Well, there’s songs in there that encourage me. One I wrote called “What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake)” is kind of a challenge to my fellow Christians and to myself as well to walk the walk instead of talking the talk. The other one on there is “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” a spiritual that features the Carter Family. That may be my favorite. It’s the one that I sang in every concert through the Sixties, and it always gave me inspiration.
What songs on Love have special meaning to you?
“Flesh and Blood” is a nice memory for me. I wrote that in 1970 when I was way back in the country somewhere, way back in the sticks, sitting beside a creek. I wrote it for June. And “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart),” from the American Recordings album, is maybe my favorite in that whole bunch of love songs. It’s a Jimmie Rodgers song. I’d sung it all my life, but never recorded it.
Overall, do you enjoy going back through your past to compile collections like this one? Or are you more comfortable looking forward?
Well, making new music and new records [is] what I always want to do. We can always put together interesting and good compilation albums from my repertoire, going back to 1955. I have no doubt we’ll continue to do that. But meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m going to be doing my thing out there in the studio with Rick Rubin for American.
How far along are you on the new album?
We’ve recorded twenty-eight songs. And I’m going to California now and hopefully in the next three weeks I’ll do my vocals, and hopefully we’ll finish it. So far it’s acoustic — it’s only one or two guitars. We started recording it in my cabin over in the woods from my house, and we just didn’t bring in a bass when we started recording, and it felt good again to do it that way. Some of the songs are just me and a guitar; sometimes there are two guitars. Sometimes Norman Blake, sometimes Randy Scruggs. And now in California, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers is doing a couple of guitar tracks for me.
How many of those twenty-eight songs did you write?
Only three or four actually. A song of mine I wrote called “Before My Time” is maybe one of my favorites. But it’s got a real variety. There’s a Bono/U2 song called “One.” I just finished that the day before yesterday with just two guitars, Mike Campbell and Randy Scruggs. It’s a fabulous song. Also did a Nick Cave song called “Mercy Seat.” And there’s some country and some folky things, a Jimmie Rodgers song, a Hank Williams song…
Which Hank Williams song?
Well, I had never heard it before. He wrote it for a singer named Molly O’Day in 1949. It’s called “On the Evening Train.” It’s a tragedy song. There’s also a Stephen Foster song called “Hard Times” on there.
Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin has got to be one of the must unlikely and successful partnerships in the last ten years.
You know, it’s amazing to me too. He and I work together so well, and we get so creative and so excited when we’re in the studio. I’m really looking forward to spending two or three weeks with him in the studio in California. We really got off to a good start on this album.
So will this album and the new gospel album be coming out at the same time?
No. The gospel album will be next year some time. I hope this one will be ready for this fall.
Do you see yourself performing again?
No. Not concerts — not touring. I’ll never do that again. I’ve had forty-three years of that. That’s enough. I can direct my energies more to recording now. I intend to keep recording as long as I’m able. It’s what I do, it’s what I feel.
You’re bound to know that thousands of your fans around the world have had you in their prayers over the last couple of years because of the illnesses you’ve faced. Is that a daily challenge you face, or do you feel like you’ve survived the battle?
Yeah. Yeah I do. Last year, I had pneumonia twice. And when I got over it, when I thought I was over it in November last year, June and I went to Jamaica for the winter so I would be out of Nashville during the flu season. But as it turned out, I had what they call walking pneumonia, until about six weeks ago. I had an antibiotic IV to kill it again, because it was still there, in my lung. But it’s gone now.
I know that the fans have really been concerned that I’ve been really sick — as a matter of fact I was almost dead — but God willed that I live, and here I am, enjoying myself and looking forward to finishing this album. I’d like to thank everybody for their prayers and say that I hope I won’t let you down on producing some good work.