Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.
With that understated opening to the rockabilly classic Folsom Prison Blues, the Man in Black stressed the root of his existence.
Cash held no pretense and needed no handlers. He represented the brokenhearted, the downtrodden, the outlaws, the sinners – basically most anyone who has walked the earth.
His wrinkly face and basic black garb complemented the misery he brought to aching life with a wobbly but distinct, deep baritone that hugged and never strayed from the unsophisticated melodies that define country music.
Cash yearned for the spiritual afterlife, chiefly to escape the harsh world he made a career of examining and defining. But ten years after his death, Cash’s spirit still walks the Earth as an authentic chronicler of the underbelly of life.
The feeling that he is still with us seems even more real by the recent release of an autobiography of Cash. Robert Hilburn’s book covers some new ground on Cash’s life, but its real contribution is how it succinctly recaptures Cash’s daily struggle with, quite simply, his good and bad sides – a fight that everyone understands.
Cash’s appeal as a man in our corner breaks through generational and class barriers. Who doesn’t – 22 or 62; male or female; country, suburb or ghetto – own a Johnny Cash song or album?
That’s because Cash accomplished what many musical artists have tried: sing what they mean and mean what they sing, without seeming phony. Skilled artists often fail to convey soul, while passionate ones cannot deliver musically. Cash could offer a mean lyric – “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” – an apocalyptic warning – “I went drifting through the capitals of tin, where men can’t walk or freely talk, and sons turn their fathers in” – or a bizarre story – “My name is Sue; how do you do?” – and still seem sincere.
He stripped down and laid bare the human condition, always walking the line between sin and redemption, loneliness and fulfillment. He managed to balance all of life’s contradictions, and did so almost more as a storyteller than as a singer.
Of course, Cash did have a tale to tell.
A childhood in Depression-era Arkansas and the death of his older brother, a preacher, deepened his Christian faith. Many of his songs bear the mark of a virtuous man waging a costly battle against sin.
His long fight with drug addiction, concerts for prisoners, defense of Native Americans and patriotism legitimized his common-man standing.
So while other musicians postured, Cash stood firmly in the trenches of country, rock, folk and gospel. Elvis Presley could have had the same legacy, had he not gone Hollywood.
Because digital music has empowered listeners to pick and choose songs without much interference from record labels, it’s difficult nowadays to set records in music. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller will probably be the best-selling album of all time a century from now.) Still, it says something that only Cash and Elvis can boast, at the next big jam session in the sky, that they have membership plaques in the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame. Cash won 11 Grammy awards, dominated Country Music Association award ceremonies and sold millions of records – even outselling The Beatles in 1969, the year of Abbey Road.
Cash had every reason to fade into retirement, after a shaky stretch of recordings in the 1980s, and privately wrestle with a multitude of health problems. But he braved the spotlight in the 1990s and early 2000s by recording perhaps his strongest work with the first four volumes of the American Recordings series.
He covered Beck, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, Soundgarden, Leonard Cohen and U2. He dusted off classics by Kris Kristofferson and Jimmie Rodgers. Either singing sparely with an acoustic guitar or leading the electric charge with youngsters such as Flea and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cash basically told pop-conscious Nashville what country should really sound like.
Even after his wife and soul support, June Carter Cash, died, Cash immediately put his pain and solitude to music. Fifth and sixth chapters to American Recordings highlighted his yearning for the next destination. “There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down,” he sang on his last studio recording.
Cash indeed does stand in the pantheon of musical greats: The Beatles, Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and others. But where he really belongs – after that big jam session in the sky winds down – is where creative genius consistently dukes it out with unadulterated soul and heartache: the home of Louis Armstrong, Patsy Cline, John Coltrane and blues pioneer Robert Johnson.
Johnson is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil. In return, he could play the guitar like a stage full of Jimi Hendrixes and reveal a heartbreak you wouldn’t wish upon your enemies. Armstrong, Cline and Coltrane also hit that nerve.
They must have saved a seat for Cash, who is probably wearing black in heaven.