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The Man in Black is back, at length

Times Staff Writer

Johnny CASH’s death last month was a huge loss for many, not least among them Rick Rubin, the producer who talked the Man in Black into returning his music to its unvarnished basics.

The result was four albums that rank among the country great’s best work, from “American Recordings” in 1992 through last year’s “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”

After that last one was done, it hit Rubin that they’d recorded from 40 to 70 songs for each album, yet only a dozen or so wound up on the finished release. That left a lot of music unheard by the public. In most cases, Rubin says, it wasn’t because the songs or performances were inferior.

“There were always great ones that didn’t go on the records,” Rubin says. “It was rarely about quality. We just picked the ones that felt best together.... After we had done this four times, we realized we had all this great stuff, and it would be great to put it together in some form and let people hear it.”

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That will happen Nov. 25, when Lost Highway issues a five-CD box set, “Unearthed,” with nearly 100 tracks. One disc will consist of highlights from the four studio albums, the other four will be previously unreleased recordings -- the opposite of the usual configuration for multi-disc sets.

“The timing of it is so odd,” Rubin says. “I called him to tell him that I’d just gotten the first pressing finished, and he was so excited to hear it. The next day, he was gone.”

That was Sept. 12, when Cash died at age 71 from complications related to diabetes.

Along with the highlights disc, the album will include four themed discs: a gospel disc titled “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” with songs selected from the same hymn book his mother sang to him from when he was a child; “Who’s Gonna Cry,” featuring mostly outtakes from the 1992 recording sessions for the “American Recordings” album; “Trouble in Mind,” with songs on which Cash was backed by various rock musicians including Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers rhythm section and L.A. roots band the Red Devils; and “Redemption Songs,” including some high-profile duets with Joe Strummer (Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) and Fiona Apple (Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”).

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The set also includes a 104-page booklet in which Cash talks about each song that’s included. Although the project had been in the works for nearly a year, Cash’s death prompted some questions at the record company about the propriety of the title, which had long been planned as “Unearthed.”

To Rubin, it was clear what to do.

“We had discussed it, and he loved it,” Rubin says. “It’s the title Johnny wanted, and what we had agreed to a year ago.”

Rubin, whose work with everyone from the Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine to Petty has made him one of rock’s most acclaimed producers, first met Cash backstage in 1991 following a Cash concert at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. “We had a good connection and talked about working together. I don’t think he really knew much about me when he decided to work with me. The Nashville community thought he was crazy, but he didn’t seem worried about anything. He was just an open, beautiful, spiritual, serious man.”

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Rubin also got a front-row view of Cash’s great taste in music. “He’d send me song suggestions and I would send him mine. He would suggest old country songs he learned from old guys he used to tour with. I would usually send more modern things” including Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” which won Cash a Grammy. “Some he liked, some he didn’t.”

And how did Cash feel about recording with just an acoustic guitar and his mighty baritone voice?

“We didn’t go into making that album knowing that’s what it would be. We recorded a bunch of stuff in different ways.... We recorded a lot with bands before getting to the acoustic record. He loved it, but he was nervous when I set up a solo show for him at the Viper Room. We recorded that too, and one of the songs is on the first volume [of the box set]. He was terrified. It was odd for a guy who had done 250 shows a year for the previous 40 years. But he was really nervous about being by himself.”

These five CDs, however, don’t exhaust the supply of recordings Cash made with Rubin.

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“We were also working on the next studio album,” he says, as he cues up Cash’s version of Larry Gatlin’s gospel song “Help Me,” which Elvis Presley recorded in the ‘70s. “That one was recorded in the last couple of months. This will be the last studio album, which I can’t believe. We were really on a roll.”

Small faces

* Primus is joining the swelling ranks of bands making concert recordings quickly after the performances. The group, on its first tour in nearly four years, has launched a Web site, www.primuslive.com, where downloadable recordings from each tour stop will be posted as early as 48 hours after the show.

* For the first time, a Farm Aid concert will air on national TV. The 2003 edition, held Sept. 7 in Columbus, Ohio, and headlined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews, will be shown Thanksgiving night on PBS stations. Also on the lineup are Sheryl Crow, Brooks & Dunn, Emmylou Harris, Los Lonely Boys, Hootie & the Blowfish, Billy Bob Thornton and Trick Pony.

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* L.A.'s about to get weirder: Seminal L.A. punk band the Weirdos has reconvened with original members John Denney, Dix Denney and Cliff Roman teaming with Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss and Gears drummer Sean Antillion for a few West Coast shows in November and December. The tour, which reaches the El Rey Theatre on Dec. 5, coincides with Tuesday’s release of the retrospective collection “Weird World, Vol. II.”


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