Johnny Cash’s ‘Unchained’ at 20: Marty and Producer Rick Rubin recall the 1996 album
“To hear Johnny Cash sing a Jimmie Rodgers song towards the end of the 20th century in the middle of Los Angeles … it’s almost like the spiritual clock of country music was reset during that song.”
This is how singer-songwriter and country-music historian Marty Stuart frames the initial impact and enduring legacy of Unchained, the second installment in Johnny Cash’s American album series. Produced by Rick Rubin and released in 1996, Unchained celebrates its 20-year anniversary this month……
In a matter of happenstance, Stuart soon got onboard.
“It was the most unlikely of circumstances,” says Stuart, describing the invitation to be a part of Unchained, which was presented to him after a cross-country plane ride with Cash from Nashville to Los Angeles. While coincidence had placed the two on the same flight, they were certainly not strangers – Stuart had been a part of Cash’s band in the early Eighties and had previously been married to Cash’s daughter Cindy. Getting off the plane, Cash asked Stuart, “Would you mind sticking around L.A. and working on some of these Rick Rubin sessions with me?” As Stuart tells the story, his response was birthed from the same mantra he had been using since his early days playing with Cash: “No matter what, when the Chief needs me, I go.”
Stuart was already familiar with what Cash had been trying to capture with Rubin during this new chapter of his career. Before the first American album was released, Cash asked Stuart to his home. Stuart arrived and took a seat on the couch in Cash’s office, where he was promptly handed a Coke and told, “Don’t talk to me for the next 29 minutes.” Cash picked up a guitar, played a string of songs for his one-man audience, and then asked, “So what do you think about my new album?” Stuart, awestruck, answered: “Just you, your guitar, and those songs? I think it’s absolutely magic.”