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Last Updated: Friday, 12 September, 2003, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
How Johnny Cash got hip

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Johnny Cash
Cash recorded four albums with producer Rick Rubin
Johnny Cash had been a country star since the 1950s, but in the 1990s captured the imagination of MTV-generation fans thanks to a string of acclaimed covers.

Cash's regeneration came in 1994 with the release of the album American Recordings, produced by noted rap producer Rick Rubin, the man who had helmed records by Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.

Though Cash was hardly held in low regard - he was, after all the feted Man in Black responsible for country standards as I Walk the Line and Ring of Fire - generations of music fans had grown up unaware of his efforts.

All of that was about to change.

On American Recordings - the cover of which featured the Man in Black flanked by dogs and moodily peering from the edge of a field - Cash performed songs from a range of writers, including Tom Waits and heavy metal star Glenn Danzig.

'Sin and redemption'

A critical success, the album included a cover of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire and the Cash original Delia's Gone, which was a college radio and MTV hit.

Cash's reappraisal was ripe for the taking, said journalist Terry Staunton, who interviewed Cash in 1994 for the New Musical Express.

"His breathtaking imagery of sin and redemption inspired generations that followed," Staunton said.

Nick Cave
Nick Cave: Cash covered his song The Mercy Seat to acclaim

"His video for Delia's Gone - featuring Liv Tyler being murdered by her spurned lover - was one of the most requested clips of the year."

In 1996 a second album, featuring Cash backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - covered songs by modern artists such as Beck and grunge stars Soundgarden.

In 2000, a third album - American III: Solitary Man - cemented Cash's 11th hour reinvention as a man breathing gravitas and maturity into modern songs.

His version of U2's One was spellbinding, as was his cover of Nick Cave's The Mercy Seat, a record from the viewpoint of a death row inmate raging to the last.

Brooding cover

"When Cash covered The Mercy Seat, literate and emotional pop music had come full circle. It is one of the most astonishing pieces of music ever recorded," Staunton said.

In the last of the records, American IV: The Man Comes Around, the covers included Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus and Hurt, a brooding song from heavy rock group Nine Inch Nails.

Cash in younger days
Many of his newest fans were not born when he started his career in the 1950s

The video for Hurt showed a frail, shaking Cash in the front room of his house, miming the song amidst shots of his younger self jumping on freight train wagons and playing live on stage.

The combination of its affecting video and the lyrics, concerned with "empire of dust" and self-recrimination, could not help but strike a chord. It received several nominations at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, winning best cinematography.

At the time of his death, it seemed Cash had never been so important to the American music scene.

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