When Johnny Cash died last September, he had already recorded at least 50 songs for American V, the next album in the highly acclaimed series he began in 1994 with producer Rick Rubin. In Cash’s absence, that album will be released in much the same fashion as its predecessors — the dozens of tracks will be evaluated and a select sample will make the final cut. Rubin and Cash accumulated a huge backlog of unreleased work, and before Cash’s death they decided to release Unearthed to commemorate their first decade together. They both hoped there would be much more ahead.
Its uncomfortable title aside, Unearthed is that rare boxed collection that lives up to its size and grandeur. One reason it does is that so many songs are covers. This is not to say that Cash was not a terrific songwriter. One of his last songs, “When the Man Comes Around,” a hair-raising vision of Armageddon, is as mighty as “Folsom Prison Blues.” But Cash’s career was built as firmly on interpretation as composition. Most young pop artists record their own material almost exclusively; only collectors are interested in boxed sets that offer numbing alternate takes of songs we know too well. But when an artist is pillaging the catalogue of American music and ranging far beyond his original inspirations, gems lurk in unlikely places.
For those familiar with the Cash/Rubin collaboration for the American label, that is part of the fun of Unearthed — measuring its songs against the ones that made the cut. Inevitably this is a subjective enterprise, but how could songs like “If I Give My Soul,” “No Earthly Good,” “Big Iron,” and “Singer of Songs” be left out in the cold? It’s not as if Americans I - IV didn’t have their share of clunkers, either. The irony is that there are fewer clunkers on the whole of Unearthed than on the official albums.
IF THERE’S ONE SONG here that should be beyond debate, it is Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Chunk of Coal,” a timeless expression of the quest to be redeemed. The song’s metaphor starts in a familiar material world — Cash knew a bit about coal — and effortlessly works its way upward to the heavens:blockquote> em>I’m just an old chunk of coal br> But I’m gonna be a diamond someday br> I’m gonna grow and glow br> Till I’m so blue pure perfect br> I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face br> But I’m gonna kneel and pray every day br> Lest I should become vain along the way br> I’m just an old chunk of coal, now Lord br> But I’m gonna be a diamond someday. /em>
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