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Johnny Cash: the unplugged album that saved a country legend’s life

Johnny Cash had given up on life by the early 90s. Then he met Rick Rubin – the producer who would reawaken his career with the acoustic American Recordings

In 1992, Johnny Cash was all but washed up. Having been reduced to playing a residency in the glitzy fun palaces of Branson, Missouri, a kind of low-rent Las Vegas, he felt deserted by country music radio and all but ignored by his record company. Then he met a hip-hop/metal record producer who not only saved his career but, it’s claimed, added 10 years to his life by recording the groundbreaking solo acoustic classic American Recordings.

Lou Robin (manager): Johnny had been with Polygram since 1986. He owed them one more album and wanted to do a gospel album, but they didn’t want that, so they were kinda at loggerheads.

John Carter Cash (son): He was recovering from a broken jaw caused by dental surgery, and he’d also had surgery on his knee. He was suffering chronic pain and got to a point where he could no longer take opiates for that, but he was determined to endure.

Lou Robin: We were talking to various labels, but none of them were coming up with fresh ideas. Then our agent called one day and said that Rick Rubin of American Recordings, who was a new name to me, would like to meet with John. So we set up a meeting.

February 27, 1993: Rick Rubin goes to see Cash play at The Rhythm Cafe, Santa Ana.

Lou Robin: John’s attitude was that this was just another record company guy, but after the show I took Rick backstage.

John Carter Cash: When they sat down at the table they said: “Hello.” But then my dad and Rick just sat there and stared at each other for about two minutes without saying anything, as if they were sizing each other up.

Johnny Cash: I said: “What’re you gonna do with me that nobody else has done to sell records for me?” He said: “Well, I don’t know that we will sell records. I would like you to sit in my living room with a guitar and two microphones and just sing to your heart’s content, everything you ever wanted to record.” I said: “That sounds good to me.”

Roseanne Cash (daughter): I thought: “This is odd. I wonder how this is gonna work.” Just knowing the acts Rick had worked with, it did cross my mind: “Is he gonna try to make some kind of parody out of dad?”

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