PEOPLE TALK ABOUT RECORDS THAT GIVE YOU CHILLS ALL
the time, but the final album from Johnny Cash, American
VI: Ain’t No Grave [American/Lost Highway], will really do it.
Every note on it serves as a stark reminder that we lost a hero
and a legend when Johnny Cash passed away on September
12, 2003. It becomes more poignant still because Cash was
tracking this record with the full knowledge that he was dying.
And when producer Rick Rubin brought in guitarists Mike
Campbell, Smokey Hormel, Jonny Polonsky, and Matt Sweeney
to add guitars, Cash was already gone, and they cut tracks as
that classic voice—now fragile and vulnerable—filled the
room. GP community member Christopher Young summed it
up eloquently: “A man’s final words are usually not his loudest,
but they can be some of the most important.”
Was there a different mindset for this Johnny
Cash record as opposed to the others you had
done for him?
Hormel: Yes. On the other records
that I did with him, he was usually there.
I was working on this one after he had
died. The tracks were already recorded
at his cabin and then Rick brought us
together to sort of replay a lot of the
instruments in order to make his voice
sound a little less frail. Listening to the
record now, the first thing that came
back to me was how heavy it was—the
feeling in the studio when we were working
on it. Here’s this man that we knew
and loved and he had just passed away
and yet he was very much present. It was
a very emotionally draining experience
to work on that record.
Campbell: It was totally different
because he wasn’t present. We went in
and Rick had recordings of Johnny’s
voice in various states of disrepair. The
tracks were somewhat loose, but the
voice was good. So the mindset was to
try to do what we thought the man that
we loved and respected would have
wanted when we couldn’t turn to him
and ask, “Do you like it this way?” We
just have to hope that we did it justice,
and that he would have liked it.
There are several guitarists on this record.
How would you characterize your roles?
Campbell: Rick would play us whatever
song he had, and the three of us
would listen and then grab an instrument
we felt comfortable with. Smokey
is very versatile. Sometimes he would
take up a banjo or an acoustic bass. Typically,
one guy would fingerpick or
strum, and then the other guy would
fill in to make it sound like a unit. We
would try to find a balance that would
support the song and not get in the way
of the voice.
Hormel: Often my role was to sort
of lay down a basic rhythm and then let
the other guys find a way to play against
it and embellish it. On a lot of these
tracks I ended up playing bass on a
Tacoma acoustic baritone guitar. We
miked it really close with a lot of compression,
and I played it with my thumb with flatwound strings to try to make it
sound like an upright bass. Rick wouldn’t
really tell us, “You play this. You play
that.” We would just come up with parts
and Rick would say, “I like this. I don’t
like this.” It was a very collaborative thing.
Sweeney: I guess I was the guy who
Hormel: Jonny Polonsky and I would
often play the same part in unison, but
we weren’t exactly in unison, so that
gave it kind of a cool feeling. The little
glitches make it sound more human.
Then, often Matt Sweeney would be
doing these eighth-note or quarter-note
triplet arpeggios, and Mike Campbell
would add a lot of really tasty fills or doing
some counter-melody or something.
How much guitar did Johnny Cash play?
Hormel: I believe Mr. Cash plays
on both “Cool Water” and “Satisfied Mind.”
The blend of acoustic instruments is
really beautiful on this record. How much
thought went into choosing specific guitars
for each tune?
Hormel: A lot of this recording was
done in Rick’s house and he has a nice
guitar collection, but his guitars aren’t
really all in the best shape. They’re not
set up often, the strings are really old,
and in a situation like that you don’t
have time to change the strings. Matt
Sweeney played a funny Martin that had
a certain sound. Mike Campbell had a
really nice Martin. On some songs I’m
playing a Harmony acoustic that sounds
like a folk singer strumming. So it was
just sort of a random thing, but it came
together. There was a lot of interaction
from Rick because he’d sit in the control
room and say, “No, I don’t like the
way that guitar sounds on that part.
Can you play a different part?” It was
the guitars that dictated the parts quite
often. It was more like, “This is the guitar
I want to play, so what part works
for this guitar?” rather than, “I want to
play this part, let me pick a guitar.”
Campbell: Part of it is instinctual. If
someone else picks up a Gibson, I might pick
up a Martin so that it balances out or fills
in some tones that maybe the other guitar
doesn’t have. Sometimes you put a capo on
to raise your pitch up so that you’re out of
the way of the other guitar but you complement
it. The next thing is just being sensitive
to the way the other guys are playing and
trying to fit in. Definitely everybody underplayed
to make sure that we were just
supporting the voice.
Sweeney: Everybody just seemed to naturally
stay out of each other’s way. I don’t
think anyone was ever in the same tuning,
so we just listened to each other, played off
each other. It was all about Mr. Cash’s voice,
reacting to it, and playing along with it.
Many of these tunes are basic, I-IV-V progressions.
How do you keep a simple tune interesting?
Campbell: Johnny’s always done that.
He’s always had that gift from his days with
the Tennessee Three. Dynamics are a big part
of it. Out of three chords you can make a
movement out of loud and soft. But it is a
Sweeney: Chord voicings and picking patterns
open things up. There are worlds of
room for rhythm and internal melodies in
the framework of three chords, or two, or
What would you say you learned from Johnny
Sweeney: I hope everybody can learn
something about phrasing, toughness, vulnerability,
and being in the moment from
Hormel: I was always struck by his passion
and his commitment to delivering a
song. He was fearless, and yet he wasn’t
afraid to show fear either. It was really inspiring.
He had so much strength, it just made
you want to do your best.
Campbell: To be real in the way you play
and the way you express yourself in the
song. To be honest and real and true as a
person. That’s something I hope I picked up