Johnny Cash was, to me, as complex as America itself. He wrote songs about bad men, good women, and hard times, but was never seduced by nor succumbed to cynicism, true men of faith are not like that.
Unless you live where I do, the impact of Johnny Cash's death just isn't the same. I live just outside Nashville, where the deaths of country musicians, even those not nearly as iconic as Cash, are front-page news. Friday night the local NBC affiliate took a break from reporting car wrecks, murders, and high school football and devoted an hour to Cash's live, work, and family. Saturday morning's Tennessean published a Johnny Cash Commemorative Edition: "Remembering the Man in Black" (featuring a excellent essay by music critic Peter Cooper) and promised coverage of the legend that will continue in Sunday's paper. Nashville, at least until Monday, will be the center of the entertainment world as all of the celebrities who reside in the Volunteer State, will be asked to contribute an encomium or two for J.R.
And why not. The death of Johnny Cash, though not entirely unexpected, is still a seismic event in popular music, especially when you consider the arc of his career and how he was embraced by a generation of musicians young enough to be his grandchildren. Cool, though that may have been, I was always a little uncomfortable with it. While I was certainly pleased that Cash lived long enough to experience a renaissance, and he did make some great music (especially his first collaboration with Rick Rubin, American Recordings), I always thought that his recent success was as much about his image as it was his music; that new young fans were caught up in the "idea" of Johnny Cash. (Can you picture Justin Timberlake listening intently to the "Ballad of Ira Hayes"? Me neither.) For the vast majority of those at MTV's VMA awards, Johnny Cash was the quintessential outlaw, a speed addicted, mutant offspring of country, rockabilly, and rock and roll who sang songs about killing folks. And, I would guess, there were many among the VMA crowd that only understand Cash in relation to his work with Rubin. But Cash is not the first performer (nor will he be the last) to experience younger, hipper, and richer artists (many of them with good intentions) romanticize and live vicariously though his hardscrabble life.
I don't really care much for Trent Reznor with or without Nine Inch Nails and when "Hurt" was originally released I heard it a few times, but thought there were better songs about the horrors of heroin addiction (like John Prine's "Sam Stone"). When I'd heard that Cash had recorded it I thought it was a bad idea, a move too ironic for it's own good. I was wrong. But Cash's version reminded of something Nick Tosches once wrote about George Jones, that his voice could tease out the most powerful and complex emotions out of the most obvious shopworn lyrics, a skill that the man in black, with his half-an-octave baritone range had employed with great success throughout his career. I love the video for "Hurt" too, though I can't imagine why anyone under the age of 40 would. Ruminating on your life is not something that twenty/thirtysomethings do; it's a middle-age (and older) activity. Caught between what has happened and what you have to look forward to, your understanding of age is very different, Cash died at 71, that doesn't seem as old to me today as it used to.
As much as he left an indelible mark on American popular music (especially on his great 1950s minimalist recordings for Sam Phillips with the Tennessee Two, guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, and into the '80s with albums like Rockabilly Blues and Johnny 99), what made Johnny Cash great was his ability to live comfortably with the powerful contradictions inherent in being human. He balanced the twin allure of sin and redemption tasting and trying the comforts of each. It's funny how none of his younger fans, so eager to embrace the badass man in black, ever speak of his deep evangelical faith (Cash and wife June Carter were devout Christians and longtime friends of Rev. Billy Graham). But Cash, unlike many evangelicals who live here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, walked humbly with his God, proselytizing was simply not his style, mainly because he knew how easy it was to backslide and, I like to think, he could smell zealous hypocrite a mile away.
At the local university where I am employed, I teach a class in the History of Country Music and I often ask my students to speculate as to why Johnny Cash is, arguably, the coolest guy in American popular music. Some argue it's the badass image, others the authenticity they hear in his music (his rangeless baritone is the sound of everyman), others see him as less country and more the prototypical rock and roller. These are all good reasons, but for me it's because of his integrity, great dignity, and understanding of the frailty of existence. And that's key, even while cultivating his rebel persona Cash was always cognizant of the consequences of his characters actions. We are all too familiar with the oft-quoted nihilistic couplet in "Folsom Prison Blues", about shooting a man in Reno. But for me the hardest, darkest, and most tragic lyric in that song is when Cash's protagonist hears the train whistle blow and imagines the people in the cars "drinking coffee and smoking big cigars", and with undisguised resignation he sings the haunting lines, "those people keep moving / and that what tortures me." You can almost taste the bitterness.
By being a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction (he never spent more than an overnight in jail), Johnny Cash was, to me, as complex as America itself. He wrote songs about bad men, good women, and hard times, but was never seduced by nor succumbed to cynicism, true men of faith are not like that. He seemed so vulnerable and defeated when June died in May that anyone who cared simply couldn't imagine him without her. I'm happy they weren't apart for long.
Godspeed J.R., go ahead on and ride that train.