There’s not much to be proud of when you’re from Arkansas, but we do have Johnny Cash. He would have been 81 years old today.
Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, a little hole-in-the-wall town about four hours away from Paragould, a similar hole-in-the-wall town I once called home. He grew up during the Depression, worked in the fields with his family, and was raised with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other. All of these things were essential to making him into the man he was, and they were an integral part of his music over a nearly fifty-year career. He might have varied the delivery and style, but everything he sang was uniquely his.
I could wax philosophic about Johnny Cash for hours, but I think it’s best to keep it short for the purposes of this blog. If you are interested in his life story, I highly suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner and Cash: The Autobiography by the man himself.
People who know me don’t understand why I dislike country music as a genre but adore one of its legends. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and synonymity.
His music was the soundtrack for many of my happy childhood days. My grandfather owned a flooring store where both he and my father worked, and I spent untold hours running around and climbing over rolls of carpet and scaling piles of tile samples. Often, my grandmother worked a shift, and she always listened to a country and gospel station that played a hefty dose of Mr. Cash. Whenever I hear certain songs of his, it takes me back to a day when I had a permanent case of rug burn on my knees and the biggest problem I had was getting a B in math.
I also admired him for more than just his music. It was the way he approached life, how his feelings permeated every word and chord of his music. He was a man of strong (if sometimes misguided) opinions and principles, and once he sunk his teeth into something, you would have a heck of a time wrestling it back from him. He lived passionately and loved fiercely—two traits that I admire. I think, like many people, I see a little of myself in Johnny Cash.
But I’d like to try to explain it using something more specific—five reasons and five songs.
1. “Get Rhythm”
This was the B-side on his first hit record, “I Walk the Line.” I think I love his optimism the most. The shoeshine boy he describes has been dealt a pretty tough hand, but he makes the best of it—a lot like Mr. Cash himself. I also enjoy this song because it demonstrates his ability to bend the rules. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums or horns to be played on stage, but Cash needed the percussive sound for his music to work. His trick? A dollar bill folded and wedged under his strings to mute the sound and create the “chicka, chicka, chicka” sound you hear in both recordings.
This is one of those songs he and June sang together often, and it never fails to entertain me. It’s obvious they’re crazy about one another, and he was always willing to show how vulnerable he truly was when the love of his life was around. She brought out a side of him you didn’t see otherwise–something lighter and more whimsical. He could make fun of himself and drop some of the “outlaw image” when he shared a stage with her. (I also remember watching him perform this one with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.)
3. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Though he never spent any time in prison himself (beyond a few nights in jail for drug-related offenses and for trespassing to pick flowers…no kidding), Cash could write music that perfectly captured what it felt like to be incarcerated. There was something in him that identified and empathized with the downtrodden, the maligned, and the marginalized. He knew what it meant to live without hope, like you were scratching at the walls of a very deep hole you might never crawl out of. He understood the darkness and desperation that could claim a man’s soul, and he used it. He wrote songs about that place in the human heart, and both prisoners and free people could identify with it. That’s a tough thing to do once, but he did it in several songs ranging from this one to tracks like “San Quentin” and “I Hung My Head.”
4. “I Shall Not Be Moved”
This recording is from My Mother’s Hymn Book, which Cash said was his favorite album of the dozens he recorded over his career. He was a man of faith, though he walked away from God more than once, and his love for Christ and of gospel music permeated everything he did. This song is so simple, which is what makes it great. He uses it to make a bold statement about himself and the strong faith he gained over a lifetime of struggles and long walks through spiritual darkness. His gospel songs are all wonderful, but there’s something plain and proud about this version I admire. Like all believers, I want to sing this song and mean it….just like he did.
Bono said, “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” I couldn’t agree with him more. This song, and the video that went with it, was the one that introduced Cash to younger music lovers who might never have heard of him. This single song created a passion for his music in another generation. But instead of the quiet, raging whisper of Trent Reznor, Cash sings it with a melancholy and bittersweet longing that makes it impossible to turn away from. This is a man who knows the end of his life is near and that everything he fought and bled for was worthless in the end. He sits at a feast table alone, surrounded by the hollow wreckage of fame, and tells us point blank, “You can have it all, my empire of dirt.” In his late 70s and with a voice fading and cracked with age, he still sings with an intensity that is inescapable. That’s the beauty of Johnny Cash; he got better with age. What made people love him in the 1950s still had the power to captivate; he was the real deal.
In everything from “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” to “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash revealed a little piece of himself—whether it was the rebel, the lover, the champion of lost causes, the penitent, or the lost soul. He was a man who, though he wasn’t Native American himself, fought for the rights of that unique people group and who wore black, as he put it, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”
He once said, “With the Vietnam war as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Like an Old Testament prophet, this modern-day Elijah still speaks of faith, of fumbling around in the dark searching for the truth, and of freedom. And he’s the reason why I’m proud to be an Arkansian.
Happy birthday, sir. Rest in peace.