At age 63, most people would be thinking about how they’re going to spend their golden years.
Not country, rock and songwriter hall-of-famer Johnny Cash, who plays Playfair Race Course on Saturday.
His career is booming once again.
The seasoned singer, whose deep, scraggly voice is still as strong and vivid as ever, has made a resurgence, largely in part to his 1994 album “American Recordings,” which Cash and critics alike call his best effort in years.
Prior to “American Recordings,” Cash’s most recent albums sold dismally, mainly because the traditionalist wasn’t hip in Nashville anymore.
Further, his new recordings received no airplay on country radio stations.
This not only affected his song-writing (Cash had writer’s block for a few years) but his enthusiasm for making music.
After the Man in Black signed with American Recordings (an eclectic major label known for its Danzig, Slayer, Pete Droge and Black Crowes releases) and started working on a new album with Rick Rubin, the label’s owner and production guru, Cash regained his enthusiasm.
Rubin reminded Cash of his first producer, Sam Perkins. Like Perkins, Rubin tried to bring out the uniqueness in Cash.
With Rubin, the veteran musician finally got the chance to record an album he’s wanted to do for many years, an album that touched on genres such as gospel, folk and traditional country. And an album that used the most minimal of arrangements - Cash’s burly voice and a bellowing six-string - and brought the songwriter to the forefront.
Songs flowed from Cash. After whittling down a list of 200 songs, many written by the singer, Cash recorded 70 songs. Thirteen were then selected by Rubin and Cash to appear on “American Recordings.”
A handful of the album’s songs were penned by eccentric artists like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Glenn Danzig - yes, the same spooky singer behind the sinister rock band Danzig.
What made Cash choose to do a song (called “Thirteen”) by the other Man in Black?
“I just liked the song,” Cash said in a recent phone interview. “I sat down with him. He sang the song and I loved it. I started singing it right away, and we recorded it that night.”
Ultimately, Cash’s latest gem garnered a Grammy this year for best folk album.
Much of the legend’s rejuvenation also can be attributed to a new generation of followers, a younger, mostly non-country-listening one.
And numerous rock bands, especially the ones deemed alternative, name Cash as their all-time hero.
“It’s very inspiring to gain the acceptance of the new generation,” he marveled. “It’s astounding to me, really.”
Because of his new-found audience, Cash has been shoved into the alternative genre.
His video of “Deila’s Gone,” from “American Recordings,” became a staple not of country music video programs but of MTV’s alternative music video shows, “Alternative Nation” and “120 Minutes.”
What’s more, the organizers of Lollapalooza invited the legendary singer to join the caravaning tour last summer.
“My record company wanted me to do some of those dates last summer, but I was booked until the end of the year,” he said. “There was no way I could work them in.”
He’s also played a concert with folk/hip-hop/blues/punk odd-ball Beck. Cash is considering using one of the young artist’s songs for his next record. Beck, like Cash, marries numerous genres in his music, and does it well.
“I like his work very much,” Cash said of Beck. “He’s got a real feel for the traditional stuff, especially the Appalachian Mountain songs.”
After completing his current tour with the Carter Family, Cash will re-enter the studio with Rubin in August to start work on his new album.
“I’m looking forward to this album,” he said. “This is an important album to me. It’s not just to follow up the Grammy album but to continue to build and to grow.”
Saturday’s concert at PlayFair is a family show. It will feature performances by Cash, his wife, June Carter Cash, and the Carter Family.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: JOHNNY CASH AND THE CARTER FAMILY Location and time: Playfair Race Course, 3 p.m. Saturday Tickets: $15 ($20 the day of the show), $6 for children 10 and under
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