I’ll be honest. I got burned out on the Man in Black before I was 12. My mother played Johnny Cash, Eddie Arnold, and Tammy Wynette over and over and over… For many years, I said Hee Haw was the only form of child abuse I ever endured. And then something happened. A coworker dumped a few folders from his vast music collection on my hard drive one day. One of them was American IV: The Man Comes Around.
I was not prepared to be blown away by a frail, elderly Johnny Cash taking an already powerful Nine Inch Nails tune and making it go past eleven with an even more minimalist version than Trent Reznor’s.
And then came John Carter Cash’s film tribute to his parents, Walk the Line. Yes, it’s hard to take Joaquin Phoenix seriously sometimes, and his antics following the film sort of hurts the movie’s image. Still, I saw Walk the Line the night it premiered. So I could easily buy Phoenix as Johnny Cash. And what I saw was the early history of rock and roll, especially when Elvis and Johnny are watching Jerry Lee Lewis being Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis comments, “He’s going to be doing this twenty years from now. No one’s going to remember us.” Oh, Elvis, you had no clue, did you?
But Johnny Cash was the movie’s focus. And suddenly, all those afternoons when I was a kid hearing Johnny Cash warble from mom’s huge console stereo came flooding. I spent summer afternoons with “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Walk the Line,” and “Boy Named Sue” as the soundtrack. I started snapping up whatever I could find. There were the Sun Records recordings, Live from Folsom Prison, and of course, those American recordings.
The Johnny Cash song that sticks with most people and the one that encapsulates his music best is “Folsom Prison Blues.” His whole sound prior to the 1990’s was based on an early version of the power trio with a broken bass making that clacking sound on the original recording. Cash reached out to a whole culture of convicts and ex-cons with the line “Well, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” A kick in the gut, really. Johnny Cash, like Tom Waits later on, was right at home on the wrong side of the tracks. Not bad for a failed appliance salesman from Nashville.
Then there’s “Ring of Fire,” a song written by his lover, and later his wife, June Carter. The song was originally written for her to sing, but Johnny put some Mexican horns behind it and made it his own. And why shouldn’t he? He’d written “Walk the Line” as a promise to his first wife not to stray. Such is life on the road.
I really like the Folsom Prison album, which has one of my favorite Cash tunes on it. “Cocaine Blues” is sort of a “Fuck you” to the prison administration, letting the convict audience blow off some much needed steam. I used it for a rather tasteless bit of schadenfreude at Sadaam Hussein’s expense a few years ago. It’s very much the essence of the best noir fiction.
And then there are those American Recordings. Long after the public had written Johnny Cash off as a relic, he teamed up with Rick Rubin to produce some truly unique work. It’s all quintessentially Johnny Cash, but it’s different. Much of it is cover work, yet many of the songs are better than the original versions. “One” (U2’s, not Metallica’s), “Won’t Back Down,” “Personal Jesus,” and “Hurt” are all impressive work for a man who is supposed to be past his prime. I especially like his version of “Personal Jesus,” which has just the right balance of belief and mischief to really grab you. How powerful is it?
Listen to that Jeep commercial with the lone acoustic guitar playing over the brutal percussion. Did you ever think they’d hawk trucks and SUV’s with a song called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”?
I went away from Johnny Cash for a while. In fact, I refused to listen to country having had to listen to so much of it as a kid. But Johnny Cash never went away. Even after his death, he was sitting there with his acoustic guitar waiting for me.