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 fingerpicked.
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 mysterious thing.
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 even one.
What would you say you learned from Johnny Cash?
Sweeney: I hope everybody can learn something about phrasing, toughness, vulnerability, and being in the moment from Johnny Cash.
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 from him.