I didn’t have any real awareness of Johnny Cash until he died.
One September evening in 2003 I was driving to a swim session with my triathlon club, listening to Bob Harris’ regular country music show on Radio 2, when Harris talked about Cash’s death and played Folsom Prison Blues. I was blown away. Since then I have acquired all the American recordings, and some earlier material – which I listened to on loop as I was reading this.
Over the past few years I have become increasingly interested in the roots music of country, blues and folk and Cash has been high on my play list. The man himself has remained something of an enigma though. Try and breakdown the different aspects of his performance and there is nothing particularly special about him. Yes, he has a wonderful baritone voice, but his vocal range is limited. And he is hardly the most accomplished of guitarists. Yet I would rate his cover of U2’s “One” (which I consider probably the greatest pop song ever) the definitive version, and I cannot watch the video of “Hurt” without coming over all weepy. There is something about the sum of the man that is so much greater than any analysis of the parts. As Turner puts it:
As with many legends in popular music, it’s not easy to say exactly what made Cash great. He never became a great guitarist, his voice had a limited range, and his lyrics veered between poetry and doggerel. But the combination of that voice, those words, and that guitar far exceeded the greatness of any one element. He was a presence, a form of energy, a vehicle for truth.
Cash grew up in genuine poverty, in a farming community in the Great Depression. As a child he picked cotton on the family small holding. He came to fame and fortune in the 50’s, nearly lost everything through drug addiction and re-emerged in the 90’s as a cool-again performer. Cash is in someway the embodiment, the voice, of America – from poverty to riches, loss and redemption, a star with the common touch.
What is culturally and historically fascinating is the way the American South produced a new form of music in the 50’s. Elvis and Cash (along with Jerry Lee Lewis and others) emerged at almost exactly the same time from almost exactly the same geographical place to transform the world of music, and in a way the world – a bunch of Southern Baptist and Pentecostal boys infused with gospel music and with country in their souls suddenly gave birth to rock ‘n roll. Elvis became the king, but I hadn’t previously realized how closely he and Cash tracked one another, especially in their early years. What happened in Memphis in the 1950’s made the subsequent history of rock and pop possible. Without Sun Records popular culture as we now know it (for good and ill) would not be what it is.
Cash’s story is one of sadness and addiction, fame and faith. He was touched by grace at an early age but the pressures of constant touring, and the dependence on amphetamines that it led to, destroyed his first marriage and saw Cash drifting from the beliefs that he held dear. Cash’s relationship with June Carter, herself already through two marriages, in a way saved him, and in the end it was his faith that won out over his addictions. Rick Rubin then saved Cash as a recording artist, by liberating him from a tired country formula and enabling him to record the American albums that connected Cash with a whole new audience – with people like me.
To read this biography is to read a story of grace. It is a story of Jesus’ unfailing love triumphing over the frequent rebellion of one of his most gifted children. What stands out about Cash in the end is his faith in a Savior who was able to restore him to grace despite all his failure and pain. It was this Cash – the Cash who had hit rock bottom on more than one occasion, who had come so close to losing it all – who was able to subvert songs of dereliction and cynicism and romantic love (“Hurt” and “Personal Jesus” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”), turning them into expressions of praise to his Savior.
And I think that’s why I love listening to him sing.