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'American' Remembered: Rick Rubin On Johnny Cash

Rick Rubin collaborated with Johnny Cash on the American Recordings series. In 2003, the first disc was ranked 364 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. (AP)

Rick Rubin is perhaps best known for starting the rap record label Def Jam from his dorm room while in college, or for working with hard rock bands like Metallica and System of a Down. But starting in 1993, he entered into a creative partnership with the country legend Johnny Cash that lasted for the last 10 years of Cash's life.

Cash and Rubin called the series of albums that emerged from the collaboration American Recordings. Each album featured original compositions by Cash, traditional songs, and covers, sung by Cash, usually over an acoustic guitar arrangement. Four of the albums came out before Cash's death in 2003, including American IV: The Man Comes Around, which featured Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails song, "Hurt."

Rubin has produced three albums that have been released since Cash's death — the box set Unearthed and the albums American V: A Hundred Highways and American VI: Ain't No Grave, which was released this week to coincide with what would have been Cash's 78th birthday.

Rubin speaks to Terry Gross about what it was like to collaborate with the country music legend. In addition to working with Cash, Rubin has worked extensively with Linkin Park, Slayer, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, Russell Simmons and the Beastie Boys.

This interview was originally broadcast on November 25, 2005

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

I spoke with Rubin in 2004, after the release of a 5 CD box set of the Cash-Rubin sessions called "Unearthed." Before we hear the interview, here's a track from "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of song "When He Reached Down His Hand For Me")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Once my soul was astray from the heavenly way I was wretched and vile as could be. But my Savior and love gave me peace from above when he reached down his hand for me. When my Savior reached down for me, when he reached down his hand for me, I was lost and undone without God or his son, when he reached down his hand for me.

GROSS: One of the CDs in this new box set is just spirituals - spirituals and hymns, solo. It's just Johnny Cash and his guitar and I just particularly love this CD. They're so beautiful and there's so much feeling on this. And I dont know if youd listened to a lot of these kinds of songs before, so I'm interested in what the process was like for you of just hearing Johnny Cash sing spiritual after spiritual.

Mr. RICK RUBIN (Record Producer): I thought it was beautiful and it was interesting how it came about. Johnny had found - the title of that album is called "My Mother's Hymn Book," and Johnny had found his mother's hymn book, the actual one that she sang him songs from the time he was born. And these are songs that he'd been singing since he was four years old and they really helped form who he was as a person and as a singer, so he felt more connected to these songs I think than any songs he ever recorded before, and very second-nature for him to play them.

GROSS: While you were recording these songs, did it give you insights into Johnny Cash's relationship with religion and spirituality?

Mr. RUBIN: He's probably the most committed spiritual person I've ever met. He really lived his life according to his connection with God, really. And he had such an honest and pure way about it that - I remember we had a dinner party at my house one night with Johnny and June and some musicians and some film directors, and before dinner, Johnny had everyone hold hands and he said a prayer and he read from a Bible. And I know some of the people at the table had never experienced that before and some of the people at the table were even atheists. But his belief in what he believed was so strong that what you believed didnt matter so much because you were in the presence of someone who really believed and that felt good and that made you believe really in him more than anything else. It was really beautiful.

GROSS: Why dont we hear "I Shall Not Be Moved"? I think a lot of people know this as a spiritual that was also used as a civil rights song - it was one of the anthems of the civil rights movement. I'm not sure I've ever heard it sung this way before. What about you?

Mr. RUBIN: I dont think I have either.

GROSS: And what did the song mean to him? Did he talk about it at all?

Mr. RUBIN: He asked my opinion and was not concerned, but didnt want to create confusion and wanted to make sure that people understood that when he sang the song he was singing it as a devotional song. And, when we talked about it, we kind of came to the conclusion that regardless of how people took it, either way the message was a good one and he was fine with it.

GROSS: Okay. This is Johnny Cash as featured on the box set "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of song, "I Shall Not Be Moved")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Glory hallelujah, I shall not be moved. Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the waters, I shall not be moved. In his love abiding, I shall not be moved. And in him confiding, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved.

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash singing "I Shall Not Be Moved" from one of his sessions with producer Rick Rubin. We'll hear more from Rubin after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded with Rick Rubin about producing Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" series. The final album in the series was released today.

Now some of the takes that youve released over the years are recordings that he actually made in your living room. Do I have that right?

Mr. RUBIN: Yes.

GROSS: Not even in your recording studio but in your living room.

Mr. RUBIN: That's correct. The whole first album was recorded in the living room of my house.

GROSS: And why did - when you were recording in the living room, did you do it with the idea that this would be the final takes, this would be what you would release?

Mr. RUBIN: Originally not. Originally they were demos, and then as we were recording in studios and in different places and trying different things, when we listened to all the different things we tried, the living room tapes were kind of the most exciting to both of us, so we continued recording in the living room.

GROSS: Why do you think that was so? Why do you think the living room tapes were the most exciting?

Mr. RUBIN: I think it's because Johnny had made so many albums in the recording studio that it reframed the experience of recording and it really was just he and I sitting on a couch and him playing these songs. And it had a more personal and intimate and internal feeling about it. It wasnt - I spoke earlier about the performance aspect of playing in front of people and I suppose being in a recording studio has those same kind of - there's a certain expectation of getting on the mic in a recording studio that there's some kind of permanence about it, where singing songs in the living room is - it's really casual.

So I think the catching the casual - his real true causal personality was something that we were able to do better in the living room environment than in a studio environment. And then as time went on, I put a studio in my house, which has very much of a living room environment.

GROSS: When did Johnny Cash start getting sick within the period of time you were working with him? I mean, how deep were you into the recordings when it was clear that something was going wrong?

Mr. RUBIN: During the recording of the second album, which was called "Unchained," was when he started - when it became apparent that he was not well.

GROSS: How did it - like, what were the first things that made that clear?

Mr. RUBIN: We'd be in the studio working and he would get dizzy or he would be unable to sing and have to lay down for a while. And some days he wasnt able to sing and he would just not be himself, not be himself at all.

GROSS: What were some of the most difficult parts for him of being sick and vulnerable - somebody who'd been so strong and seemingly stoic just judging from the records, you know?

Mr. RUBIN: Yeah, he was. I think stopping touring was a really big blow to him because he had been on tour for the last 40 years doing, you know, 200 shows a week per year. And I think he felt like he in some way lost his purpose because he was an artist and his - the thing that drove him was connecting with people and entertaining people and inspiring people and he felt like one of the main venues for doing that was taken away from him and I think that was a very, very difficult transition.

And probably the reason that he chose to record so much was because that was the part of his career that he could continue on and continue being an artist and continue being creative and continue communicating. And that's one of the reasons that we have the box that we have. If he was still touring I dont know that we would've been able to record so much.

GROSS: What was your recording schedule like after he got sick?

Mr. RUBIN: We would record as often as he wanted to record. We set up a kind of a home studio at his home and we had the studio at my house and we would work in both of them all the time and as often as he would want us to get together. Or sometimes he would record stuff on his own or - and send me tapes and then I would work on them, or sometimes I'd work on tracks and send them to him and he'd sing them. And we had a just kind of an ongoing - we were always working.

GROSS: Did you live close together?

Mr. RUBIN: No, he lived in Nashville and I live in Los Angeles.

GROSS: Oh, so one of you was always flying back and forth.

Mr. RUBIN: Yes. Although, we did some, as I said, I would record some tracks at my house and send them to him. He would sing them and send them back.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RUBIN: Or he would work on - he would cut an acoustic track and send it to me and then we would add whatever was going to be added to it here and sometimes we worked long distance as well.

GROSS: It must be extraordinary for you to know that you produced this extraordinary body of work from an older musician at a time when, you know, youre supposed to be like over the hill - the best work is supposed to be behind you. And this is work that not only changed Johnny Cash's image and, you know, got him, you know, Grammy Awards and everything, but its just such valuable music to have. I mean, its so - I'm so glad we have it.

Mr. RUBIN: I agree. And I feel like it's really an issue with our society that we really discard good things before their time just because they get old or look a little ragged. And I dont think age in any way took away from Johnny's greatness. And in many ways, as he got older, and even as his voice may have gotten weaker, it somehow was able to convey emotion in an even deeper way and, you know, we can't discount the wisdom.

He had so much wisdom from both the wild life he led - he really led the life of - he led 10 lives during the course of his lifetime and was so interested in so many things and was really a researcher and studied and read all the time, was so smart and he had so much to offer. And the idea that someone like him could be put out to pasture is - it's really a shame and just a terrible mistake.

GROSS: Rick Rubin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RUBIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Rick Rubin recorded in 2004. The final album from Rubin and Cash's "American Recordings" series was released today. It's called "American VI: Ain't No Grave." Here's another song from it.

(Soundbite of song, "Alohe Oe")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Proudly swept the rainclouds by the cliff. As on it glided through the trees. Still following with glee, haaheo hihi lehua of the valley. Aloha oe, aloha oe. E ke onaona noho i ka lipo. One fond embrace, a hoi ae au. Until we meet again.

GROSS: Coming up: David Edelstein reviews the French film "A Prophet," which is nominated for an Oscar.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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