It would be too easy to call him an everyman, too cliché, too trite.
And yet, that is what he was, an everyman, a singer and songwriter who plumbed our souls and made each of us real and alive in his music.
Johnny Cash, country icon and rock and roll founder, died Friday of complications from diabetes, leaving behind nearly 50 years of remarkable music and a legacy of innovation.
I first became aware of Johnny Cash when I was a kid in the late 1960s, back when he and his wife June Carter Cash had their network television show. I remember how cool he looked, dressed in black and leather, singing in that deep baritone with a chugging country band backing him.
The Johnny Cash Show (and Hee Haw, a much under-appreciated show that featured the amazing Buck Owens and Roy Clark, just “a-pickin’ and a-grinnin'”), I think, helped ground my musical tastes, laying the seed for my current love of country music and the hybrid country-folk-rock of the Byrds, Graham Parsons, Ryan Adams and Wilco.
But that was before I learned of the distinctions between country music and rock and that rock fans like me who lived in the northeast were not supposed to dig music recorded by the son of an Arkansas sharecropper. These were false distinctions, as I later learned, enforced by a cultural myopia I knew nothing about at the time, a narrowness of view that pushed country to the margins.
My tastes during the early and mid-1970s ran more to the big bad stadium rock of the time (Kansas, Styx and the like), as I followed the trends in suburban New Jersey. But I kept one foot in what might be considered the country camp, listening to the Eagles (a good band that I came to realize later offered only a pale imitation of what I would alter find listening to “The Man in Black” or Merle Haggard), Neil Young and some of the acoustic California rockers of the time.
It wasn’t until my junior and senior years in high school when I was drawn to punk rock and the new rock-a-billy (Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Robert Gordon, the Blasters) that I started thinking much about Johnny Cash again. That’s when I started looking at the songwriting credits on albums, taking notice that Carl Perkins penned some of my favorite Beatles songs and reading about Sun Records. I was getting back into Elvis Presley and discovered that the King and Johnny Cash both recorded for Sun at the same time.
That led me to the record store, where I bought some Johnny Cash singles and cassettes and played them until they wore out. (I still hae the 45s, reproductions of his Sun sides; the tapes, alas, are long gone.) But Johnny Cash remained a past-tense musician for me, a man whose heyday had come and gone.
Then came his collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, known for his work with rap artists Run DMC, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys and rock acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black Crowes and Tom Petty.
The result was four remarkable albums, the latest of which was released earlier this year and featured Cash’s pained and haunting rendition of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”. In many ways, the four “American” discs (so named because the had been initially released on the American Recordings label), offer a perfect career synopsis of one of the more adventurous and inventive country stars ever recorded.
They are stripped-down discs that highlight one of the most distinctive voices in history, Johnny’s voice left bare to explore the contradictions and disappointments of the world.
Yet, what struck many critics at the time was that Cash was willing to step out of the box that country musicians are too often unwilling to leave and record songs outside the genre. He offers a unearthly version of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me”, turns Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen” into a haunting personal declaration and Tom Waits “Down There By the Train” into a spiritual tour de force.
This, of course, is something he always has done. He always embraced younger artists, crossing genre lines to work with Bob Dylan as early as 1968, bringing him on his show and singing duets (there is a great recounting of this in Peter Doggett’s Are You Ready for the Country, a book about the intersection of rock and country). He has covered Dylan, Bruce Springsteen (memorable versions of “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman”) and others in his career, so these American discs really just brought him back full circle.
“This album, they’re having a hard time putting it in a category, as hard as they try,” Cash told Country Music magazine in 1994, just after the release of American Recordings. “But it’s just me and my guitar, and it’s the dream album I talked to Marty Robbins about doing 25 years ago.”
He continued on this track, releasing three more discs of material with Rubin, covering a wide range of styles including Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” and “I Won’t Back Down”, U2’s “One”, Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” (a real country-western stomp in Johnny’s hands), Beck’s “Rowboat” and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”. In each case, Cash takes the song and makes it his own, bringing its essence to the surface. Even to the end, he continued to write remarkable tunes, adding to a songbook as powerful as any in American music. (A box set of out takes from the American sessions is expected by Christmas and is slated to include a duet with former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who died last year.)
This bit of conversation from an October 2000 with Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone pretty much sums up what Cash has done during his long career. He starts to sing a bit of a 1905 song by Bert Williams called “Nobody” and then stops and laughs.
“‘It’s a great old song,’ he says. ‘Then there’s a new song I’m recording next session called “The Mercy Seat” — it’s a Nick Cave song. And I’m writing three or four songs myself at the same time.'”
Describing the process, the enthusiasm Cash has for the material is evident, the respect he has for his younger colleagues genuine – harkening back to the days when he flouted convention and invited artists like Dylan and Joni Mitchell to appear on his TV show.
The key to Cash’s music, of course, is his empathy. There is a visceral, seemingly personal connection between Cash and his audience. He writes of prison and drug addiction, murder and war, poverty and spirituality in a way that makes it feel as if he is singing to each and every one of us.
“Cash took sides in his own songs, and in the songs he chose to sing,” John Nichols wrote on The Nation Web site Friday evening. “And he preferred the side of those imprisoned by the law — and by economics.”
In 1978, on “I Would Like to See You Again”, he recorded the song “After Taxes”, a lament told from the point of view of the average worker that much of the money he earned was going to the government: “Don’t you know but then they hand me that little brown envelope / I peep inside Lord I lose all hope / Cause from those total wages earned down to that net amount that’s due / I feel the painful sense of loss between the two.”
It’s a song that anticipates the anti-tax and anti-government fervor that was partially responsible for pushing blue-collar voters into the hands of a political party — the Republican — whose policies are at odds with workers’ best interests. Implicit in the song, which is a catalogue of lost opportunities, is a sense that the money that goes to “Uncle Sam” has no connection to the singer’s life, that average workers just see their money heading to Washington without any kind of service coming back in return.
And there was the Peter LaFarge song he recorded on “The Bitter Tears”, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, the story of a Pima Indian from Arizona who, despite encroachments on Indian land by whites, enlists to fight in World War II. The Indians, the song goes, farmed their own land and lived peacefully “Till the white man stole their water right and their sparkling water stopped / Now Ira’s folks grew hungry and their land grew crops and weeds / When war came Ira volunteered and forgot the white man’s greed.”
But after being honored, he returns “a hero celebrated through the land”, he is forgotten, “just a Pima Indian no water, no home, no chance / At home nobody cared what Ira’s done and when do the Indians dance.”
So he “started drinking hard, jail was often his home / They let him raise the flag and lower it like you would throw a dog a bone / He died drunk early one morning alone in the land he’d fought to save / Two inches of water in a lonely ditch was the grave for Ira Hayes.”
Cash spent his career singing songs like these, tales of the poor farmer, the Vietnam vet, the prisoner — all of those who have been marginalized and dispossessed by an American culture moving too fast or tied too tightly to profit-and-loss statements.
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,” he sings in his signature tune, “The Man in Black”, “Livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
In this way, he links the traditions created by country legends like Hank Williams, bluesmen like Robert Johnson, folkies like the Weavers and Woody Guthrie and the dark hymns, ballads and honky tonks found on Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music (what critic Greil Marcus has called “the old weird America”) with rock-and-rollers like Dylan, Springsteen, John Mellencamp and others.
As Jon Pareles wrote Saturday (September 13) in the New York Times, Cash’s music eschewed most of the fads that ran through both country and rock music during his lifetime, staying with his “trademark arrangements, with his steady-picked guitar and the marchlike beat of his longtime backup group, the Tennesse Two.” They were songs of a “hardscrabble perspective” and connected to the sounds he heard as a boy growing up in rural Arkansas.
“Older American rural music spoke directly of hard times and mortality,” Pareles wrote. “Songs about romance and honky-tonking were always around, but they were the Saturday-night respite from rugged lives.”
His empathy extended beyond white rural America to embrace Native Americans (particularly on the album Bitter Tears). And while much of the country-music establishment ended up acting as cheerleaders not only for American soldiers in Vietnam but for the misguided and jaded policies that put them there, Cash questioned the entire enterprise, writing songs from the perspective of those putting their lives on the line.
For many of the same reasons, he opposed the invasion of Iraq earlier this year and he has been critical of the consolidation and homogenization of the record and radio industries — Nichols, one of the few commentators to acknowledge Cash’s politics, quotes Cash saying that “the very idea of unconventional or even original ideas ending up on ‘country radio in the late 1990s is absurd.'”
It is that empathy that I think places him on a higher plane that even legendary contemporaries like Merle Haggard. Whereas Haggard could be angry and preachy (his “I’m an Okie from Muskogee” is a flat-out great record, its bitterness and anger driving it, making it wonderful to listen to despite its odious politics), Cash often tempered his rage with humor, undercut what in other hands might seem morbid and crazy with a laugh and his remarkable voice. (“Delia’s Gone” from American Recordings is about a man who kills a woman slated to be his bride and includes some truly gruesome details, but somehow managed to remain a truly funny song.)
Ultimately, it is the voice I will remember, that deep, resonant croon that carried within it the joys and hardships of a life lived to its extremes. Johnny Cash lived hard, was addicted to diet pills and booze, allowed his first marriage to crumble, his TV show to fade.
And it’s all there in the music. Not that his songs are biographical. They aren’t. It is there in the voice, in its rough edges, its cracks and fissures, in the weariness that came to the fore more and more as he got older.
It’s his voice that makes “September When It Comes”, his duet with daughter Roseanne on her latest, “Rules of Travel”, such a mesmerizing song, their voices playing off each other as they sing the “When the shadows lengthen and burn away the past / They will fly me like an angel to a place where I can rest.”
And on “Hurt”, the single from American IV: The Man Comes Around, that voice is breaking, fading, cracking, showing his age, almost as if Cash is singing it from the grave.
Like Warren Zevon, who died September 7, Cash never shied away from the difficult topics, never walked the line expected of him, approached life and death with humility, grace and class.
There’s not much else you can expect of a man.