Johnny Cash, according to an article on Slate.com, has never been more popular. The article goes on to say that under the guidance of producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin Cash was cast as indelibly cool. While also, claims the author, his music strayed into the arena of kitsch to solidify the somber legend quality of the “Man in Black.” Sounds like a lesson in re-invigorating a classic brand to me…
The thing about that dichotomy is it’s basically the reason people always related to Cash. He was talented enough to play it both ways. He was a hard livin’, old school tough guy. You’d get the impression he didn’t need to outplay the devil to win his soul and new guitar; he could just beat the snot out of the devil and walk away with both. After all, he famously sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Beat that Charlie Daniels! It’s the sort of bravado that informed everything he did. That’s why a song or two later he could break out a spiritual, perhaps something like “Daddy Sang Bass.” There’s nothing tough about that number, but it didn’t affect his toughness a bit.
If anything, it proved he could do anything. Taking out an add in Billboard in which he flips off the Nashville set pales in comparison to what he did with Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” The Dylan version, great writing notwithstanding, is about as Wonderbread folk as it gets, and yet Cash manages to stiffen it up further. It bucks one of most important principles behind hip music (of any period) by being clunky and wooden. There’s no reason I can think of why his version should be worth listening to. But it’s great. The man was that good. He made it work.
And there’s the business lesson: if your product is genuinely good, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) worry about doing the cool thing. Cash knew about branding, even if it wasn’t called that at when he started. So where the Slate.com article has it wrong is that Rubin didn’t turn Cash into kitsch; he merely adapted Cash’s repertoire for a new audience. The hipsters who make up a large portion of his new fan base probably grew up with Cash records on their parents’ shelves (probably At Folsom Prison). This is a crowd that most likely knew at least some of Cash’s mythology, if not all of the Man in Black’s legacy. What Rubin realized is that if anyone could pull off wearing a cape in a field on an album cover, Johnny Cash could. And, hell, how else would you title that album cover, but as “CASH.”
Question the move if you like. It might have been the best one for the Cash brand.