On Wednesday night (May 17), grunge icon Chris Cornell took his life after performing a concert in Detroit. He was only 52, and according to a statement from family, his death was “sudden and unexpected.”
Cornell was a massively talented musician and lyricist. As the frontman of the seminal 90’s grunge band Soundgarden, he inspired a generation of aspiring rock musicians. In the 2000’s he fronted Audioslave, a rock supergroup that achieved wide international success. Cornell’s far-reaching artistic influence extended across popular music, even into the world of country.
The entry point was when Johnny Cash recorded Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” for his 1996 album Unchained. The song’s commanding lyrics inspired Cash to cut bare-bones version of the track that surprised pretty much everyone. Cash’s version leads with a boom-chick guitar and commanding voice that sounds like a battered Western character riding horseback into town to declare victory.
“We put that song out five years earlier on Badmotorfinger, and nobody left me any messages,” Cornell told Rolling Stone. “When you strip it down and Johnny Cash sings, you listen to what he’s saying. It’s a whole different angle.”
It was a brilliant way to cover the song and was one of many covers around that era that helped resurge Cash’s notoriety with a younger generation. Cash also performed the song with Marty Stuart on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show in 1997
Cornell’s influence on country musicians didn’t end there. In 2014, he joined Jason Aldean onstage during the country singer’s CMT Artist of the Year Special. Along with Aldean’s band The Three Kings, Cornell provided rhythm guitar and vocal support on “Just Getting Started.” The pair would never collaborate again.
The following year, Cornell collaborated with the Zac Brown Band for their experimental album Jekyll + Hyde. The album’s grungey detour track, “Heavy Is the Head,” features Cornell’s vocals and guitar work. That same year, Cornell and ZBB shared the Saturday Night Live stage to perform the song.
Cornell’s death has touched artists across country music’s many branches. Everyone from Jason Isbell to Jennifer Nettles posted remembrances and memories of Chris on social media on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
RIP Chris. The band up in heaven just got a little more edge.