Great Album Reviews: Unearthed (Johnny Cash)

Album: Unearthed
Artist: Johnny Cash
Genre: Country, Alt-Country, Acoustic
Year: 2003


Johnny Cash told it like it was and didn’t mess around, so I’ll get to the point: the 5-disc Unearthed boxed set is an epic statement that in many ways sums up Johnny Cash.  If you don’t have it, and you know who Johnny Cash was, you should probably go buy it. These days, it’s only available as a download, but that’s cool.

Without this collection, I wouldn’t be playing the music I’m playing now. I got it, and felt I immediately had to learn about half the songs on the first and third discs. Focusing like that on learning guitar music changed me from a drummer who knew a few chords and maybe wrote a song every couple of years, and into a guitarist who writes songs.

I don’t think we realized when listening to the American albums produced by Rick Rubin after Columbia Records dropped Cash that what we were hearing was just a sliver of light visible through a half-opened door. Unearthed was what lay in the room beyond.

As country music changed, Columbia pushed Cash toward a bigger sound, with string arrangements and horn sections, and a production style that Rick Rubin then came along and stripped away. Johnny Cash was a storyteller with what’s been called the voice of a Biblical prophet, and anything that got in the way of that voice telling the stories it wanted to tell, had to go. This gave rise to American Recordings, Unchained, Solitary Man, and The Man Comes Around. Not included on those albums were the songs that would make up the four essential discs of Unearthed. The songs on Disc 5 were culled from the official albums.

Each disc is itself a masterpiece, and of disc 4, My Mother’s Hymn Book (later released as a stand-alone album), Cash himself said, “You asked me to pick my favorite album I’ve ever made and this is it, My Mother’s Hymn Book. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was to it. I’m so glad that I got that done.”

I could write about the Kristofferson songs he covers, or the new takes on old songs that were originally over-produced, or the duets, but what else do you need beyond that quote?

So thanks, Johnny. And thanks Rick Rubin for the vision that made this collection, and all of the American releases a reality.

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