30 Years Ago: Iconic Johnny Cash Show Relaunches His Career

photo: via The Viper Room

There are concerts. Then there are concerts that go on to be so iconic, they become etched into the consciousness of music indelibly and forevermore. On December 3rd, 1993—30 years ago today—Johnny Cash played one such concert to a very small, but very distinguished group of guests. The performance would go on to be the catalyst to revitalize his entire musical career, and launch Johnny Cash into the stratosphere once again.

Johnny Cash’s set for 150 people at the tiny and packed club called The Viper Room in West Hollywood, California wasn’t the beginning of Johnny Cash’s re-emergence with producer Rick Rubin, resulting in his Cash’s second coming. But it’s the moment where it all became real and front facing to the public, and where the American Recordings era first caught fire.

You probably already know the first part of the story about how Johnny Cash was virtually washed up in late 1992 after being abandoned by the country music industry, and was relegated to playing nostalgia shows in Branson, and generally being crestfallen about the lot of his career after so many years as a country star and legend. Producer Rick Rubin went to see Cash perform at The Rhythm Cafe in Santa Ana, California on February 27th, 1993, and immediately knew he wanted to work with him.

By June of 1993, Johnny Cash was signed to American Recordings and regularly going to Rick Rubin’s home off the Sunset Strip to record in his living room—just Johnny, Rick, and a couple of microphones. It became evident quickly that they were capturing something magical. As fall turned to winter, Cash continued to work with Rubin, including at his Cash Cabin studio in Hendersonville, TN.

But up until December 3rd, everything was still preliminary and hypothetical. Would Johnny Cash really be able to hold an audience with just his voice and an acoustic guitar? Previously, Cash’s guitar had been just as much a prop as it was and instrument as he strummed it way up on the fretboard. It was the date at The Viper Room that would go on to prove that Cash 2.0 could be epic.

The Viper Room had been founded by Johnny Depp earlier in 1993, and catered mostly to rock, punk, and metal bands. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the opening show as a favor to Depp, and it has since become an iconic Los Angeles club, despite its small size and multiple ownership changes (Depp sold it in 2002). Many important musical moments have happened on that stage. But arguably none more important than Johnny Cash’s.

When Johnny Cash took the stage, Johnny Depp is who introduced him. Tom Petty was in the crowd as a true fan and spectator, and would go on and insist to Rick Rubin that he and the Heartbreakers wanted to be a part of the next Johnny Cash recording sessions. Flea of The Red Hot Chili Peppers was also there, as were scores of other heavyweights in the music and entertainment business. Johnny’s bride June Carter Cash was in the front row too.

Johnny Cash admits that for the first time in many years in his career, he was super nervous taking the stage because he didn’t know if he could pulled off what Rick Rubin envisioned for him. But of course, Johnny Cash killed.

“It was an incredible night. Dead silent. You could hear a pin drop. People couldn’t believe it was Johnny Cash there in The Viper Room,” Rick Rubin recalled later. “People who were there that night still talk about it as one of the greatest things they’ve ever seen.”

After Cash played 45 minutes of the American Recordings material they were working on, he leaned over to June and asked, “What do I do now?” She replied, “Well, sing your hits.” And that’s exactly what Johnny Cash did.

When the opening salvo from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings was released on April 26th, 1994, two songs recorded on that night at The Viper Room made the album: “Tennessee Stud,” and “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” Most notably, “Tennessee Stud” is far and away the most downloaded and streamed song from the album. When you hear the crowd hooting and cheering Johnny Cash on, you’re hearing it directly from the Viper Room set.

Johnny Cash’s appearance at The Viper Room went on to be one of those shows everyone in Hollywood claimed to be at, but only a few were telling the truth. Rick Rubin knew Johnny Cash could still be iconic, and so did Johnny himself. But it took The Viper Room performance to prove it, and the buzz from it went on to seed the interest in Johnny Cash’s American Recordings legacy.

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