In my estimation, one of the biggest and most lingering pop-music headscratchers of all time is why producer Rick Rubin never convinced the late Johnny Cash to interpret a Mike Ness song on one of Cash’s many American Recordings releases. Surely, it would’ve been a seamless effort and an easier-to-swallow cover than goofily shoehorned bad biker-rock poetry of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” right?
Ness leads the acclaimed, 30-years-old-and-still-kicking-ass punk band Social Distortion (or Social D, as they’re affectionately called) and proven himself a disciple of the Man in Black by making “Ring of Fire” (penned by Cash’s wife, June Carter) a Billboard Modern Rock smash back in 1990, 27 years after the song was written. Ness is often compared to Cash as a songwriter (they share a knack for telling strong narratives) and as a soul who struggled with demons—in Ness’ case, heroin—and triumphed, transforming that struggle into incredible music.
Great as his previous songs have been (“Ball and Chain,” “Story of My Life”), his work on the just-released Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is, I dare say, his best yet. Now on the mighty punk mainstay label Epitaph, which sent me an advanced copy, Social D delivers its first album of original material since 2004, and the wait is so worth it. No longer content to mine the angry drama of his youth, Ness is finally ready and willing to write outside of his experience, as he does with “Machine Gun Blues,” an old-school storytelling tune about the life and death of a 1930s American gangster, and his miserable imaginings of being stuck and/or trapped in the swaying, country-rock hell of “Bakersfield” and somehow still managing to be saved by love.
Of course, Ness doesn’t completely eschew autobiography. “Still Alive” fits perfectly alongside his catalog of songs about surviving the darkness, so that when he sings “And I’ve been to hell and back/I’ve fallen from this track/From the back to the front page/From the gutter to the stage,” you can hear the hardscrabble authenticity in his voice. (No wonder the Boss is a fan.) Also, his upbeat, amps-cranked-to-11 take on Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” sounds lived in, as if Ness understands what the song is really about whereas others just settle for a melancholy vibe.
Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes dropped Jan. 18, and conveniently Social D is in town for three sold-out nights this week (Jan. 20-21, 22) to blow apart House of Blues with alt-country act Lucero and troubadour Chuck Ragan. Ness has assembled a great band for this tour; in addition to bassist Brent Harding and guitarist Jonny Wickersham, he’s also recruited drummer David Hidalgo Jr. (son of Los Lobos singer/guitarist Hidalgo Sr.), who punishes the kit with true-punk intensity. Look for me: I’ll be wearing a Duck’s Ass (rockabilly hairstyle) and a Soundgarden T-shirt!
It’s never too early for love. Send your Valentine’s Day heavy-petting iPod mix to Jarret Keene.