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Johnny Cash

posted by Mickey on 11/05/02

In deference to Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers, the usual thing for people who care about country music to say about Johnny Cash is that he is the greatest performer of the post-war era. But while those guys were undoubtedly better yodelers than the Man in Black, I feel pretty confident in throwing away my "Guidebook to Not Offending Ornery Looking Fossils in Ten Gallon Hats" (Grand Ole Opry Press, 1959). I'll say it straight out. Johnny Cash is the greatest country singer there has ever been.

My guess would be that amongst people who care exclusively for country music, there would be a lot of votes for either Patsy Cline or George Jones as the best voice in the genre. While I am very happy to nod at those people, and raise my shot of whiskey towards them (while at the same time subtly checking out the exits) my vote still goes to Cash.

Johnny Cash is to country music what John Wayne was to Western movies. He is the most important artist in a genre that helps to define America. Like John Wayne, Cash is a big craggy deep-voiced personification about what America wants to believe about itself. To be perfectly honest, here, you wouldn't say either of these artists have an exceptionally broad range. But they personify something that, while it is not completely true, is not completely a lie either, about their audiences.

What they personify is not a simple truth. For all that John Wayne is a shorthand term for the brand of virile white alpha-male American heroism that comes wrapped in a flag and cradling a shotgun, the characters he played often had dark facets on exhibition even to audiences who got off on all the other stuff. Ethan, the insane Injun-hating vigilante whom John Wayne played in "The Searchers" is the prize exhibit of the brutality that was a part of his persona. Even in movies like "Red River" where Wayne plays more sympathetic characters (not that Ethan is necessarily meant to be unsympathetic) you often notice Wayne's characters possessing a stubbornness that seems admirable for a while until it suddenly spills over into the kind of monomania that gets a lot of people killed.

Before I go on, I ought to say a few words about authenticity. This is a question that arises all the time when you look at popular culture at a pretty brainless level. What do you mean Bruce Willis doesn't customarily kill terrorists? Getouttahere! In his movies he is blowing them away left, right and center. You are seriously trying to tell me Eminem doesn't drink a fifth of vodka and go joyriding over bridges with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car? Yeah, right. I've got the album, pal. I personally believe he puts duct tape over Dido's mouth and slams her in the trunk even if they just needs to go down to the mall to pick up some groceries. He doesn't really live with Dido? You obviously don't watch MTV. You don't think Tori Spelling is one of the hottest young women in California? Well, if you'd watched her show, dimwit, you'd have seen that men with regular chiseled features were climbing over one another to get a date with her character regardless of the fact she wouldn't put out. The entertainment industry is devoted to constructing images. There's no reason why it should be particularly problematic if an artist should turn out to be nothing at all "in real life" like the image that was constructed for him or her by that industry.

Nevertheless, it does appear to arise as a problem in relation to folk music, which is the kissing cousin of country music, because this music is supposed to be the authentic voice of "the people." Both eggheads and rednecks, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, enjoy the music created by the American white trash underclass because they believe it expresses something profound about the community from whence it sprung. So, if you are listening to a crackling old recording of someone singing, "The Banks of the Ohio," you want to know that the singer who is bleating it out farmed dirt for a living, had a big scraggly beard, no teeth apart from a few nicotine stained incisors, slept with his sister, and went blind from drinking moonshine. If it should turn out that the recording was actually performed by some doofus nerdfaced college student who was wearing a turtleneck jumper, rather than denim overalls, would you enjoy the music more, less or exactly the same? Perhaps the answer should be, exactly the same, but I am happy to admit that, for me, part of the pleasure of listening to old time country music comes from knowing a lot of it was made by people with dirty fingernails, just like a part of the pleasure I get from listening to rap music comes from knowing it comes "Straight Outta Compton" (or wherever).

When people are genuinely legends, like Johnny Cash or John Wayne, there is a natural human desire to know whether or not the life approximates the legend. For all I know, in his private life Johnny Cash customarily speaks very rapidly in a high pitched adenoidal voice and interjects the phrase, "Omigod Omigod" into just about every sentence he utters, less in a sense of expressing his deep faith, but more as a kind of verbal accompaniment to a characteristic birdlike flapping and flustering of his hands, as if he was trying to take off. For all I know, far from dressing in black 24/7, his usual attire could be a brightly colored singlet or tank top. In the end, none of this would particularly matter, but I am reasonably confident in believing that Johnny Cash "in real life" is very much like the man he appears to be from his music and his films and his television appearances. There are hundreds of stories about Cash responding to his fans with great dignity, patience and sympathy. He sounds like a great guy. Although he could change into black clothes just to do interviews, all the interviewers like to mention that he really does dress predominantly in black 24/7.

Straight Outta Dyess, Arkansas

Like John Wayne, Johnny Cash is an American super-patriot, but in Cash's persona, the item in the hand of the man singing the songs is not a shotgun, but The Bible. Cash was raised amongst God fearing folk, and he is a God fearing man, and a great part of his prodigious output is devoted to gospel songs, spirituals, and songs of praise. When he does interviews, he always talks movingly about his faith. To be perfectly honest here, just about the only moments in my life I have ever thought about embracing a protestant version of the Christian faith in any other spirit than one of broad farce have been while listening to Johnny Cash recordings. But- and what a pleasure it always is to be able to use an apposite quotation from "Point Break"- Johnny has his own demons. Don't you, Johnny? To balance all those stories about Cash being a great guy, there is plenty of evidence to show Cash spent most of the 1960s in a Benzedrine fog, and has battled with drugs on-and-off ever since, and everybody who knows him seems genuinely surprised he has survived to be 70 years old. I think just about every Johnny Cash album ever released has a picture of Johnny Cash on the cover. Well, he was a good-looking guy. But if he had ever wanted to put an image from a film onto the cover of one of his albums, Morrissey-style, the image to go for would be Robert Mitchum's character in "The Night of the Hunter," the preacher with "love" and "hate" tattoo-ed across the knuckles of his hand. Cash works in a tradition that is absolutely crammed full of murder ballads. If you like blood-soaked music, you'll find as many corpses in Appalachian folksongs as you will in gangster rap. In 2000, Columbia/Legacy released a career spanning three-volume-set, with the CDs broken up thematically into albums devoted to "Love", "God" and "Murder". What strikes you when you listen to the albums is how many of the sides on any given album could just as easily find their way onto the companion volumes.

The hallmark of Cash's musical style is simplicity. The 50s and 60s standard three-minute pop song isn't the most complex musical form ever wrought, but most of the other stuff from the charts of that era that is still remembered today sounds rococo compared with Cash's songs. With the renowned boom-chicka-boom backing of the Tennessee Two (or, when drums were added, the Tennessee Three) giving great songs like "I Walk the Line", "Orange Blossom Special", "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of Fire" a whole lot of rhythmic clout, and the great Luther Perkins picking out some brief but screaming guitar breaks, Cash cut a series of classic platters, first for Sun and then for Columbia.

Cash has a blues-inflected bass-baritone voice, like rich nutty dark-chocolate. He sings like complete authority. He could take a Backstreet Boys lyric and make it sound as if it was lifted straight from one of the more bloodthirsty sections of the Old Testament. Sung by anyone else, a song like "I Walk the Line" would be a pretty but simple little pro-fidelity ditty. When Cash wraps his tonsils around it, however, he sings, "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine" with such a grave somber sonority that, well, you just know he means it.

It is a long time ago, and it is hard to fully realize it now, but when Cash arrived on the scene he was viewed with some hostility by the country music establishment of the time because of his association with the newfangled rockabilly style. "See I was one of those Memphis rockabillies- had sideburns- from the Memphis school of Presley and Perkins and Lewis and Orbison and Cash. It was a wonder they even let us in the [Nashville] city limits, the way they looked down on us at the time." It would be fair to say that over the years, Cash's music moved towards a more mainstream Nashville-y sound, while mainstream Nashville music, in turn, moved away from twanging and towards the blander surfaces of commercial rock music, in the search for crossover hits.

Cash's commercial peak occurred at the end of the 1960s when everybody was seemingly taking so much acid that they all voted for Richard Nixon. It was around this time Cash recorded his two most famous albums, "At Folsom Prison" and "At San Quentin" and became famous as an advocate of prisoner's rights and prison reform. Along with a long standing and deeply honorable campaign for recognition of the wrongs done to Native Americans (which was all the more honorable for not exactly being the kind of thing designed to endear him to his core demographic), and, of course, his Christian message, this is the issue with which Cash remains most closely identified. If I can get pretty serious for a moment, the points Cash has made in interview after interview about this issue are absolutely correct. When people are imprisoned, generally speaking, there are two aims of this imprisonment. These are:

to punish criminals for the crimes they have committed; and
to rehabilitate criminals for their eventual re-emergence into society.

The difficulty with these aims is that they are contradictory. In the name of punishing offenders, the state causes pain, humiliation and suffering to prisoners. Unfortunately, the situation prior to the crime cannot be restored. Women are not un-raped because rapists are jailed. The families of murder victims do not get the victims of homicide returned to them because the perpetrator of the murder is put behind bars. The eye-for-an-eye retributive theory of punishment does nothing to alleviate the suffering caused by the original crime. It only multiplies suffering by inflicting similar suffering onto another person, the criminal. In terms of rehabilitation, it is self-evidently ludicrous to suggest that inflicting harm, pain, or humiliation on a person is going to reform him or her. Such acts are far more likely to brutalise the person, and make him or her about 25 times more likely to reoffend.

Both "At San Quentin" and (particularly) "At Folsom Prison" are good albums, that deserve a place in any decently comprehensive music collection. The best moment on "At San Quentin" is definitely the title track. As Johnny Cash numbers go, "San Quentin," considered as a song, is pretty pedestrian, but this performance features the most extraordinary interaction between a singer and his audience ever recorded. The track begins with Cash speaking: "I was thinking about you guys yesterday. I've been here three times before and I think I understand a little bit about how you feel about some things. It's none of my business how you feel about some other things, and I don't give a damn how you feel about some other things. Anyway, I tried to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way I would feel about San Quentin."

The first time I heard the song (on the B side to the "A Boy Named Sue" single) I don't know what I expected after that introduction, but I think I expected some gently improving song about how a stretch in chokey had made the singer into a more contemplative soul. There is a chugging guitar intro, and then Cash sings the opening line:

"San Quentin, you've been living hell to me"

Then there is a beat or two as the guitar chugs along, as if the convicts can't believe what they have just heard, and then they just go (there are no other words for it) fucking apeshit and send up an absolute wall of roaring cheering stamping hooting approval. And then, as the song goes on, the sound of the audience as they take in each new line is just staggering, like the waves hitting Bells Beach at the end of "Point Break". Cash has spoken about his awareness that he was involved in something that could very easily have turned into a riot. "The guards were scared to death. All the convicts were standing up on the dining tables. They were out of control, really. All I would have had to do was say, Break, and they were gone, man. They were ready!"

But those people keep a-movin' and that's what tortures me

Unlike "San Quentin," "Folsom Prison Blues" is a great song in its own right. The original Sun recording is, along "I Walk the Line" (of course) the best of Cash's early work, and is rightly acclaimed for Luther Perkin's picking on one of the best goddamn riffs of the twentieth century. The song is written from the point of view of an inmate looking out at the world he can see on the other side of the prison walls. It is ambiguous whether the inmate who is singing so yearningly about his freedom is a reformed soul or a complete psychopath, because he sings about the people on the outside:

"But those people keep a-movin'
And that's what tortures me"

These lines can be read either as a desire to be out there with them, moving freely himself, or as a more sinister desire to stop them from moving. The definitive performance of the song is the version on the "At Folsom Prison" album, and again, involves audience participation. It was the first song Cash did at Folsom, so his performance begins with those famous words, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" and the song chigga-ching chigga-chiggs along until the singer is describing how he came to be thrown into jail.

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son,
Always be a good boy, don't you ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die

At this point, before Cash can get to his rhyme, some homicidal maniac in the crowd lets out an ecstatic satisfied, "Whoooooooooo!" With fans like this guy


The accepted wisdom is that Cash drifted into a slow decline through the late 1970s and 1980s and then made a triumphant return to form with the series of albums he made with Rick Rubin, known collectively as the American recordings, which garnered a shitload of Grammy awards and established Cash as a presence in the alternative racks of rock music stores. Personally, as much as I love those albums, I think the alleged decline in the works leading up them has been exaggerated. The big breakthrough of the Rubin albums was the way they were marketed to appeal to the MTV demographic. But it is great to hear Cash wrapping his vocal chords around songs by Beck and Soundgarden and Nick Cave, and they all have covers that look like stills from Wim Wenders films. It's all good. For people who want to explore more of the earlier work (and if one person decides to, after reading this post, then it has all been worth while) there are any number of anthologies on the market, none of them completely satisfactory, but all of them containing their share of good stuff. The "God"/"Murder"/"Love" sets I mentioned earlier are probably as good a place as any to begin. Meanwhile seemingly dozens of great albums have been re-issued by Columbia this year at mid-price to celebrate the great man's 70th birthday. If I had to stick out my neck and endorse one of these, I think I'd probably say that "Hymns by Johnny Cash" is a particular good 'un.

And then there the little matter of his brand new album, due out this week. What can I say about this? As it turns out, nothing, since I haven't heard it, and didn't even know that it was coming out until yesterday when I happened to come across a mention of a 5 November release date in a back issue of the "LA Times" that I found lying on a desk. There is no question but that a deterioration of the famous voice was apparent in his last album, "American III: Solitary Man," but, you know what, that is actually probably my favorite of the Rubin albums and if the new album has a bunch of songs as good on it, I am certainly not going to be disappointed. Sure I could sit on this post until I have had a chance to listen to it, but instead I am going to turn it over to you (especially since I didn't mean to write about Johnny Cash's music at all when I started out, except very briefly in an introductory context to a consideration of a great HBO movie he was in called "Murder in Coweta County" and just got carried away). So, you listen to the new Johnny Cash album, then email me and let me know what you think of it. That address again is:


Johnny Cash with Margaret Anne Barnes, the author of "Murder in Coweta County". Better luck next time, lady

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