Well, the Fourth of July got me thinking about America this week, and thinking about America got me thinking about good, old Johnny Cash.
I’m sure I heard his songs growing up a thousand times before I ever had any idea I was listening to Johnny Cash. But once you recognize his voice, there’s no mistaking it – deep, rich, gravely, with just a hint of an Arkansas twang.
Now, there are lots of singers with great voices, but there’s only one Johnny Cash, and that’s because of the way he delivered his lyrics. There’s something magical about it. He can whip through an entertaining, fast lyric like “I’ve Been Everywhere” or “Rock Island Line;” he can deliver a comic masterpiece like “A Boy Named Sue,” or a song like “Folsom Prison Blues” about the darker side of life. He’s a master craftsman with soul, and he has an honesty of expression that makes you believe every word.
When you read a little about his life, you can believe that he really did mean every word when he sang his songs. He grew up in a poor Arkansas family, picking cotton in the fields as a child to help make ends meet. His brother died after getting pulled into a table saw. The family had to flee the flood described in “Five Feet High and Rising.”
As an adult, his talent won him fame, but his dark side brought him around into addiction and adultery. His first marriage fell apart. He had a spiritual awakening and found true love with June Carter Cash, but even then he fell back into pills and drink over and over.
They say he started wearing his famous all-black outfit because it was easier to keep clean on the road, but he turned that into part of his own mythology with the 1971 song “Man in Black:”
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ‘til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughta be a Man In Black.
Most of his songs had that same kind of beat that made “Folsom” so great – a sort of jangly, mid-tempo railroad rhythm that picks up momentum as the song goes along. I can’t get enough of it. I don’t have a favorite tune, although I do love “Folsom Prison Blues” a lot, and you can’t go wrong with his early 1950s recordings.
But I really became a fan of Johnny Cash in the 1990s, when he was recording a series of albums on the American Recordings labels. Most of the songs were just Cash playing an acoustic guitar and singing, and with this stripped-down sound he created four albums that are all considered classics.
One of the songs he recorded was, “Hurt,” in 2002. The song was written by Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails (a remarkable artist in his own right), and he’s the first to admit that Cash’s version is better. If you get a chance, watch the video on YouTube sometime, because it’s unforgettable.
June Carter Cash died in 2003, and Johnny died four months later, at age 71. Later in 2003, “Hurt” won the Country Music Association award for Single of the Year.
It’s a tribute to Johnny Cash as an artist that this last chapter in a long and fascinating career was as remarkable as the man himself. Long live the Man in Black.
Mike Gainor is editor of the Pine City Pioneer, a sister paper of the County Star.