Cash, Rubin and the devolution of “ambition” in music

By Patrick Carr

Patrick Carr

Since his death, people constantly approach me and ask questions about Johnny Cash. The problem with a lot of their questions is that most people have no idea who Johnny Cash was. They think he was the man portrayed in James Mangold’s movie Walk the Line. While he did a fine job as an actor, I assure you that Joaquin Pheonix’s Cash bared little resemblance to the real man his friends and family knew.

The general public asks me questions about Cash that are based upon ignorance, therefore, people rarely like my answers. For example, many have asked me if I think Rick Rubin took advantage of Cash in his later years.

If Rick Rubin used Johnny Cash then Johnny Cash used Rick Rubin. Everybody used everybody and it all worked out just fine.

The interesting aspect to note, one that most fail to realize, is that the music they produced together was the product of Cash's lack of ambition. At least, his lack of ambition in the traditional sense of the word.

You have got to remember that Johnny Cash could not get arrested just before he worked with Rubin. He was not welcome anywhere in music, certainly not in Nashville.

I remember interviewing Cash in the early 80s, many years before he met Rubin, and him talking about how he wanted to go into a studio with just his guitar and record whatever he wanted to record. It would be a collection of his favorite songs and he was certain his fans would love it, but he did not care if it made him loads of money. He just wanted to make music he loved and to earn a simple living.

I asked him, “Why not just do it?” He told me that his label would not let him and he left it at that.

We can look at the question of what would have happened if the record company had let him make an album like that. What would have happened if, in 1984, Johnny Cash had gone into a studio with only his guitar and his voice, and he recorded American Recordings, that very same album series that he recorded with Rick Rubin a decade later?

What would have happened? My guess is that they would have pressed a couple thousand of them and thrown them into the dumpster because getting that sound, Johnny Cash alone with his guitar, played on country radio stations in the mid 1980s would have been a complete and total impossibility.

Cash, at that point, was the victim of the marketplace and the demographics of the time. One of the things he said to me a lot, one of his biggest complaints about Nashville was, “Patrick, I’ve heard the word ‘demographics’ so often that every time I hear it, I just want to throw up. If anybody says the word ‘demographics’ to me, I want to shoot them on the spot.”

Unfortunately, nothing has changed in country music, or the music industry as a whole, for that matter.

If you are an artist, a song writer and singer, with the same kind of power that Johnny Cash had, or the same degree of talent he had, what’s going to happen to you in today?

One thing is for sure, you are not going to be able to get into the Nashville system because you are too much for the Nashville system. What the Nashville system requires today is somebody who is presentable, handsome or pretty, and is going to show up on time, always. They want someone who is going to be able to go out there and work the road. They want someone who is going to be able to do interviews, and make TV appearances and not blow it.

But what person of any real talent or conviction is going to stay within the plastic confines of that role? Johnny Cash? Wayland Jennings? Hank Williams? Loretta Lynn? Those people are not going to be able to do that. Most importantly, they are not going to want to do that.

They are going to screw it all up, really quick, because true talent does not suffer fools gladly.

So what happens if you’re Johnny Cash in 2014? You’re twenty three years old with a once-in-a-lifetime level of talent. Where do you go?

Well, I don’t know. I really don’t.

Maybe you form your own little outfit. You get a website and try to get the word out. Maybe you have some success. Maybe you can spread your music a bit online. Maybe you can spread your music enough so it becomes feasible for you to go out on the road and play in front of small groups of people. Then again, maybe it doesn’t work and you have to get a regular job.

Who knows?

What is obviously out of the question is that you cannot enter into the big time. No one will call you looking to send you into the big leagues.

If you are person of that outlaw type, no matter what great an artist you are, you will not get a recording contract. You will not get work with a huge, major international recording company and get promoted and exposed to a worldwide audience.

That’s what Johnny Cash could do in 1959, but any artist like Johnny Cash could do that in 1959. An artist like Johnny Cash cannot do that in 2014.

What he can do? I have no idea.

It’s all in flux. It’s in transit. Who the hell knows?

It seems to me that what’s beginning to happen is basically the destruction of the whole mass market, music star phenomenon.

If you look at the course of my lifetime, and you look at what our idea of a musician has been, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Nirvana, you think of a musician as a person of enormous popularity and riches. You think of a musician as an international celebrity, as a major star, as one of the great icons of our civilization. They are at the very peak of fame and adulation.

But, if you look back one hundred or two hundred years and you see what a musician is, that is not what a musician is. A musician then is someone who goes around and plays music for people and earns a living doing only that. No real fame or riches are attached to the work.

Maybe what we are doing today is evolving back to that model. Maybe were devolving to where somebody who wants to play music, somebody who wants to devote their life to playing music, will never think, “Well, what I am really going to be doing with my life is becoming rich and famous. That’s what I actually want to do with my life. I want to become rich and famous and have everybody recognize me when I walk into the grocery store, if I ever walk into a grocery store again in my whole life.”

Instead today they think, “Maybe I can use my talent to where I can make a simple living. I can sustain myself. I can feed myself, and maybe my family, too by playing music.”

To make that thought process be the ambition for musicians today might be the best way forward.

To make good music for a decent living, and to make that your highest ambition, not all the other shit that has gone along with it over the past few decades, was the thought process that led Cash to Rubin.

What true fan of music could ever say that was a bad thing?

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