As a city boy who grew up in Washington, D.C., country music has never been my thing. Groaning guitars and lachrymose lyrics? Hank Williams and Eddie Arnold? “Grand Ole Opry” and (shudder!) Minnie Pearl? Take it away, the faster the better.
But guess what? I love Johnny Cash-and that should be put in the present tense, because his music will long survive him.
I don’t know if anybody else would compare Cash and Frank Sinatra, but I see so many similarities. When it came to style, of course, the Man in Black and the Man in the Black
Tuxedo were totally different. But when it came to telling a story and selling a song, they were brothers.
Only the best of singers can make their moods our own-and some of them can’t do it. I’m thinking of Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, both technically marvelous but something less at “reading” a song.
Johnny Cash was a master of interpretation. Whether singing about prison, trains or lost loves-three of his favorite musical topics-he put you right there emotionally. One superb example:
And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’
That’s half as lonesome as the sound
Of a sleepin’ city sidewalk
And Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.
When he was in a happy musical mood, you wanted to laugh right along:
My daddy left home when I was 3
And he didn’t leave much to my ma and me
Just an old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now I don’t blame him ’cause and run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue.
Most poignant of all, though, were the gospel songs, usually done with wife June Carter Cash and the Statler Brothers, that reflected his own long journey from drugs and alcohol.
Daddy sang bass (Mama sang tenor)
Me and little brother would join right in there
Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul
One of these days and it won’t be long
I’ll rejoin them in a song
I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne.
I “discovered” Cash about 15 years after he first came to attention at Sun records in Nashville, along with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. It came in the form of his one-hour show on ABC in an era when such programs could still be found on television. It opened each week with a shot of its star from behind. He would swivel around and say, in that muscular baritone, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Then came the theme song:
TWANG! TWANG! I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep a watch out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine
I walk the line.
If you cherished his music at all, these lyrics will start you humming and thinking about how difficult life can be and how strong people survive. That, in essence, was Johnny
Cash’s message-his own existence provided proof.
For a while in the ’60s and ’70s, I even put Sinatra on my musical back burner to listen to Cash. Frank and his voice were getting older, and Johnny was at his peak. I remember joining a few hundred thousand others at the Washington Monument to watch Cash perform at the Bicentennial celebration on July 4, 1976. We were too far away to see him, but the sound of his voice and music over the loudspeakers seemed to reflect America and its values better than anything or anybody else could.
A couple of years later, I took my small daughter to see him perform at the Kennedy Center after she had grown used to hearing his records around the house. We had tickets for the 5:30 performance, and I wanted to keep it a surprise. But that show was canceled, and we had to attend the 8:30-late for a child that age.
Finally, after an opening act, the Man in Black appeared: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
I turned to my daughter. “Look, Chris! Look who’s up on the stage!”
Not many people slept through a Johnny Cash song, and if you did you missed a lot-even if you didn’t like country music.
My only consolation is that he and June, who died three months before Johnny, are together again-as he wrote in “Daddy Sang Bass,” in the sky, Lord, in the sky.