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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The New Album is Written

I finished writing the new album tonight, which will in all likelihood be called “The Ghost of John Henry.”

If you are not familiar with the legend of John Henry, it goes like this, more or less:
In the 1870s, as technology was rapidly advancing and railroads were linking the United States in a way that had never been possible before, railroad tycoons began experimenting with steam-powered drills that could chisel into the rock of mountains supposedly faster than the “hammer-men” who had been doing this back-breaking and deadly work for years.  John Henry was the most powerful of these hammer-men, and when a steam-drill showed up at his work site — just one of a number of new technologies that threatened to make the men on the line obsolete — John Henry challenged the drill operators to a race.  When the day came, John Henry took a hammer in each hand, and attacked the rock like no one never had before.  The steam-drill threatened to make better time, but it broke down, plagued by mechanical problems, and John Henry emerged from the tunnel, victorious.  Then he laid his hammer down, collapsed on the track, and died.

Possibly not the most obvious choice for a concept album, but I will re-post what I wrote a few weeks ago, when I first shared a couple of demos of the new material here on the blog:  “The Ballad of John Henry is a folk staple, done by everybody from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash to elementary school choirs throughout the South (this is where I first heard it — in third grade), and I think maybe because of that omnipresence the essence of the story has sort of lost its meaning to a lot of people. It’s an amazing story of loss, professional frustration, heroism, and man’s place in an increasingly technology-centric world, which I think all speaks to us today.

We will go into the studio in a few weeks and begin work.  Look for the album in early 2012.  And please, feel free to check out the tracks below and spread the word if you like the direction we’re taking this thing.

Sci-Fi Romance – A Broken World by Sci-Fi Romance

Sci-Fi Romance – My Love Look Up by Sci-Fi Romance

New Members, New Songs

New things are afoot in the realm of Sci-Fi Romance. Kurt Bloom has come on board as our drummer, and we played our first show together last week in Hollywood at the Pig N’ Whistle. We are also rehearsing with a cellist to fill out the live sound. Upcoming shows will roll out these, and no doubt more, changes and surprises.

Like new songs. I’ve mentioned a couple of places that I’m writing a record based on the legend/story of John Henry — yeah, the steel-drivin’ man. The Ballad of John Henry is a folk staple, done by everybody from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash to elementary school choirs throughout the South, and I think maybe because of that omnipresence the essence of the story has sort of lost its meaning to a lot of people. It’s an amazing story of loss, professional frustration, heroism, and man’s place in an increasingly technology-centric world, which I think all speaks to us today. Enough of me yapping, though, here are a couple of rough demos from the project.

Sci-Fi Romance – A Broken World by Sci-Fi Romance

Sci-Fi Romance – My Love Look Up by Sci-Fi Romance