It could easily have ended very differently. But for the 1993 entrance of producer Rick Rubin into Johnny Cash's life it's not difficult to picture the track Cash's life would probably have followed in his final decade; semi-retirement or a handful of frustratingly spotty albums for mid-sized labels lacking the resources to decently promote him. If this sounds desperately bleak, keep in mind that given Cash's age and the kinds of records he'd made over the previous decade for Columbia and Mercury, it's hard to come to any other conclusion.
Fortunately for all concerned that's not what happened. In the last decade of his life - and particularly at the time of his death last September at 71 - Cash was as popular as he'd been since his TV series had left the air in 1971 and was as respected as he had ever been at any point in his entire career.
Johnny Cash went out while he was on top again, which is about as much as any performer can ever hope for. It's not a stretch to argue that a very great deal of the credit for Cash's renaissance since 1993 can be laid at Rubin's feet. One of the most successful record producers of his generation, Rubin convinced Cash that he still had something valuable to offer audiences and proved to be an essential collaborator and friend during the last decade of Cash's life; introducing Cash to a wide range of new material and offering him the opportunity to work with a variety of younger artists from a number of genres; country, yes, but also pop, rock and even punk.
It's long been common knowledge that Cash, Rubin and their musicians recorded far more material for Cash's four American albums than was practical - or advisable - to release. Indeed, even with the release of these four CDs of unreleased material (plus a fifth CD covering the best of Cash's American years) it's rumored that enough unreleased Johnny Cash material remains from sessions conducted in the past 10 years to fill two or three more collections of this size. In short, "Unearthed" in one fell swoop doubles the quantity of Johnny Cash's American recordings released in the past decade.
Based on the aural evidence, the first three CDs on "Unearthed" appear to be arranged in roughly chronological order. The first CD, "Who's Gonna Cry," consists entirely of songs performed by a solo Cash, accompanying himself on guitar, and the results are similar to what is heard on his 1994 comeback album, "American Recordings." "Long Black Veil" - a spooky song to begin with - kicks things off, with Cash's spare arrangement making his version as haunting as any ever recorded. From there Cash is off and running, experimenting with his new direction by revisiting his own old material ("Flesh and Blood," "Understand Your Man," "Two Timin' Man," "The Caretaker" and "No Earthly Good") and applying the approach to material by songwriters he respected, including Billy Joe Shaver ("If I Give My Soul," "Old Lump of Coal") and Kris Kristofferson ("Just the Other Side of Nowhere," "Casey's Last Ride"). Rounding out the first CD is an alternate take of Tom Waits' "Down There By the Train."
The second CD, "Trouble in Mind," finds Cash in full band mode again, featuring collaborations with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and L.A. rockabilly outfit the Red Devils. Cash appears to be less inclined to revisit his own material here, tackling numbers by Neil Young ("Heart of Gold" and a stellar version of "Pocahontas"), Steve Earle ("Devil's Right Hand") and old friends like Merle Haggard ("The Running Kind," which appears here as a duet with Tom Petty), Dolly Parton (two versions of "I'm a Drifter") and Carl Perkins, whose "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" appears here and who duets with Cash on Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." In addition, a handful of numbers appear to have been slated for an unreleased rockabilly album Cash had mentioned on a few occasions in the mid-'90s, including renditions of Roy Orbison's "Down the Line" and Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On."
The material on "Redemption Songs," the third CD, appears to date mostly from around the time of "American IV: The Man Comes Around," including an early rockabilly-influenced take on that album's title track which puts Cash's trademark boom-chicka-boom beat to good use.
Bound to attract much attention on the third disc is the version of Bob Marley's anthemic "Redemption Song," rendered here as a duet with former Clash singer Joe Strummer (who passed away at the end of 2002 at 50). It's an interesting moment; not least because Strummer had occupied an iconic position in the world of punk rock analogous to Cash's in country (and Marley's in reggae). And as was also the case on "American IV," Fiona Apple once again demonstrates exactly why June Carter Cash was in no danger whatsoever of being displaced as Cash's main female duet partner; not once sounding like she was listening to what Cash was doing on a cover of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son."
The fourth CD, "My Mother's Hymn Book," is a collection of gospel numbers, most of which have been longtime favorites of Cash's family. Recorded in a stark, unadorned manner (just Cash and his guitar) and reminiscent of his first American album it's the most consistent CD - both in terms of sound and in terms of content - on "Unearthed," with a cover of Merle Travis' "I Am a Pilgrim" and the traditional "Where the Soul of Man Never Dies" being particularly strong.
Finally, the fifth disc, "Best of Cash on American," is exactly that, compiling 15 songs from Cash's four American albums; from "Delia's Gone" to "Hurt." There's little that can be said about this music that hasn't already been said, except that if you've plunked down $70 or $80 for this set you probably already have all of these songs on their original albums. Still, their inclusion probably serves some purpose in comparing the material that was released to that which wasn't.