The first time I came across what’s come to be known as “remixing” was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Clash’s album Black Market Clash featured what were called “Dubbed” versions of a couple songs. Dubbing, like today’s remixes, involved taking the tracks originally laid down for a song in the studio and restructuring them to create different versions of the same song. In those primitive times that mainly seemed to involve manipulating the vocal tracks and laying down extra bass and rhythm tracks to accentuate the already heavy beats of reggae music.
To be honest most dubbed, remixed, and extended remixes of songs have left me cold in the past as there hasn’t seemed to have been any real artistry involved in the process. Nobody has written any new music or created any new lyrics, they’ve simply taken something that somebody else wrote and played around with it. At least that’s been the impression I’ve had until I heard Johnny Cash Remixed.Originally released in the United States at the beginning of 2009, it’s now being released as a special CD/DVD combo on the Ear Music label in England on June 15, ’09. As the title suggests the collection features remixes of some of Cash’s best known tunes.
Now there are those who are going to consider it sacrilege to play around with Johnny Cash’s music, and the producer of this little venture, Cash’s son John Carter Cash, understands this. The DVD included in this package is a documentary about the making of the CD and on it Cash jr. says that his father was all about doing things his own way and pushing the envelope when it came to music, so this project was an attempt to honour that spirit. Judging by some of the interviews with the people who did some of the remixes on the disc, they all had a difficult time in overcoming their respect for the material in order to tamper with it all. They not only realized how important the original music was to a lot of people, but they themselves had nothing but respect for Johnny Cash.
As I mentioned earlier re-mixes are normally made by working with the individual tracks from the original recording. However in this case all the material that was being remixed had been recorded without the benefit of multiple tracks like you would have in a modern studio. When Cash cut these songs for Sun Records in the 1950s everything was recorded “live” in the studio with the whole band being recorded simultaneously. So the challenge for the guys doing the remixes was they couldn’t break the songs down into their parts, but were forced to come up with ways of working with the entire song.
My original fear that the disc would end up being a collection of bass heavy, dance hall songs that had little or nothing to do with the original music was thankfully unfounded as each of the teams involved with doing a re-mix found a way to hang onto the essence of the original song. That doesn’t mean that they sound like the original material, for although there’s a few, like the version of “Big River” done by the duo Count De Money, which have kept the song pretty much intact and merely added some touches, there are others where the song is virtually unrecognizable. While that may shock purists, I would ask that you think about what you prefer when you hear a band cover someone else’s material. Would you rather hear them do a faithful, note by note reproduction of the original song, or would you rather hear them re-interpret it?
So instead of re-interpreting the songs in the traditional way, by recording them anew with new musicians, what these people have done is use technology. Some of them have laid down new vocal tracks, added in other instruments, or augmented the rhythm with beat boxes and drum machines, but they’ve all stretched and pulled the original material like taffy to change the sound and texture of the material. What I found especially interesting was the number of ways they found to carry out this process, and how they were able to make each of them work as well as they did.
I’m sure one of the last people most would expect to hear doing a Cash song would be hip hop performer Snoop Dog, but not only did he contribute a version of “Walk The Line”, he was also co-executive producer for the project. He set up his version of the song as a duet between himself and Cash, so that he’d rattle off lines that he built based around the song, and then cut to the original version with Johnny singing a verse. There are some wonderful shots of Snoop Dog on the DVD out at Cash’s cabin looking both completely incongruous wearing his LA Lakers’ singlet, but somehow also looking right at home at the same time.
Which pretty much sums up the whole recording; somehow each of the individuals or groups working on the songs have managed to find a way to make something that really shouldn’t have worked, work. It’s hard to remember now that Cash has become such an icon that he was once something of an outsider and his material wasn’t considered acceptable by a fair bit of the country music establishment. People like Snoop Dog and Pete Rock, who does a great version of “Folsom Prison Blues”, struggled, and still do, to be accepted by the mainstream, and have no problem identifying with Cash. Musically they may be miles apart from what Cash was doing at Sun Records in the 1950s, but on another level all of these guys have more in common with Johnny than most of today’s so called country stars.
When you listen to Johnny Cash Remixed you’re not going to hear covers of his songs. What you’re going to hear are some classic tunes taken apart and put back together again in ways that may not be instantaneously recognizable but do have the same intent as the originals. I’m sure there are going to be those who won’t be able to get there heads around the idea of anyone messing with Johnny’s music. However if you approach this with an open mind, and your ears wide open, you can’t help but appreciate the work of all those involved. In fact, you might just gain an even deeper appreciation for the original tunes hearing them performed in ways you’ve never heard before.