How Johnny Cash Getting Dropped From Columbia Records Led to a Career Resurgence
Most retellings of Johnny Cash's latter years, including the Cash-heavy Ken Burns docu-series Country Music, justifiably credit American Recordings founder and producer Rick Rubin for fully capturing the Man in Black’s gruff appeal across a series of bare-bones albums. Yet for Rubin to get a shot at writing the final chapter of the Cash legend, two major labels had to turn in their own sloppy drafts.
Cash got cut loose by his longtime label home, Columbia, on July 15, 1986, due to slumping album sales. At the time, Cash had not charted a Top 10 single since “The Baron” in 1981.
“This is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life,” said Rick Blackburn, head of Columbia-Epic-CBS Nashville, to the Associated Press at the time. Blackburn’s tough choice broke a working relationship that dated back to Cash’s 1958 single “All Over Again.”
Cash wasn’t the only legacy artist 86ed in ’86 by Columbia: That same year, the label parted ways with jazz icon Miles Davis.
The common narrative jumps from Cash exiting Columbia to his rightly celebrated run with American Recordings; however, Cash recorded four albums for Mercury Records between 1987 and 1991. The first of these, 1987’s Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town, cracked the Top 40 and featured covers of Elvis Costello (“The Big Light”) and Guy Clark (“Let Him Roll”).
Cash’s remaining Mercury albums, from the re-recorded, synthesizer-accompanied jumble of songs titled Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series (1988) to the even less cohesive 1991 album The Mystery of Life, are for completists only -- though, of course, relatively weak Cash releases blow away a lot of gifted artists’ best work.
This lack of focus on many of Cash’s Mercury albums went to the wayside from his American Recordings debut in 1994 until his Sept. 12, 2003, death. When Cash started working with Rubin, a man more than 30 years his junior, board meetings about what might make older country stars more appealing to younger listeners gave way to earnest discussions about which songs might suit a string of back-to-basics solo albums.
“I picked songs I liked,” Cash told the Associated Press about the 1994 album American Recordings. “A lot of them are very heavy and a lot are very dark. There’s not a lot of laughs. I only had to sing a verse of something like "Delia’s Gone" and Rick was ready for it. Maybe I shed a little more blood in this album than the average folk and country album.”
This ragged but right approach introduced Cash to the MTV generation and reclaimed his image as a folk troubadour with no interest in abiding by Nashville’s stringent expectations.
No doubt, Cash would still be beloved now without Rubin. However, a late-life renaissance would’ve sounded different, if it’d been heard at all, without American Recordings signing Cash a few years after Columbia stumbled through the musical equivalent of the Yankees benching Babe Ruth.
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