My Johnny Cash moment came in November of 1994, at Ocean Way Studio inLos Angeles, a fly on the wall of a recording session for the Highwaymen, assisting Waylon Jennings in the telling of his autobiography. During a break, Johnny kindly consented to talk about the days he spent with Waylon, when they shared an apartment together in the pill-fueled frontier town that was Nashville in the mid ’60s. I carefully set up a table with a pair of chairs. When Johnny went to sit on his, he found it broken. We set it aside, replaced it with another, and began to talk about the time he raked his microphone stand across the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry because they’d given him an ultimatum to stop missing Saturday nights.
Soon he was called away for another take. When we returned to the table, he sat down only to discover it was the same old busted chair. He stood up, grabbed the back and flung it behind him, across the room, where it bounced off the wall in a shattered heap. “We won’t have that one to worry about anymore,” he said in that low-down rumble of a voice.
In the years since he passed from us, John R. Cash’s legend has never seemed more burnished. Of all his generation – or generations, since he rode shotgun on the many twists and turns that encompass the last half of the 20th century, from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and its enshrinement to the fount of country, with its un-urban roots in the Carter Family (into whom he would marry) and healing solace – he stands ever more towering and relevant, an artisan who takes full measure and then asks you to measure up to him. Cash’s sense of integrity, his workingman spirit, his embodiment of the trials and temptations and ultimate resurrections of this life on Earth, resonates and congregates. If he’s usually depicted as a brimstone preacher, a Man in Black who, like his counterpart in the corral, Clint Eastwood, weighs his own moral scales of justice, his story also has an arc of belief as it learns how to believe, tracing that journey with hard-won song.
He grew from the archetypal creation myth of dirt-poor, in Dyas County, Arkansas, as the Depression was deepening on February 26, 1932. He might have stayed there forever, cropping the share into ever smaller pieces, but the Korean War offered him a chance to enlist in the Air Force. Stationed in Germany, he had time to learn the guitar, and wrote “Folsom Prison Blues.” When he returned to the U.S.in the mid ’50s, he settled in Memphiswhere he sold appliances and took up with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, the Tennessee Two. With Sun Records literally down the street, they hoped to be noticed by Sam Phillips, especially since their instrumentation was the same as Elvis before he added a drummer. But Cash’s version of rockabilly was less echoed than staccato-ed, with Perkins tick-tocka-tick riding the bottom strings and Grant providing propulsion. His sepulchral voice and haunting compositions underscore the tension of wanting to sing gospel, yet making his way in the hardscrabble world of pop music: the balancing act that is “I Walk the Line.”
His early records, and those he would make forColumbiawhen he moved on from Sun in 1959, are hardly classifiable, though instantly recognizable, like the shape notes that herald his opening show benediction: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He sang the canon of country starting from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” onwards, but he always slipped outside its confines, as when he added Mariachi horns to “Ring of Fire,” his biggest hit. Whether the tall tale of “A Boy Named Sue,” his passion play reading of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” or the white-lines travelogue of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” there was no question of who was singing. It was unmistakably him, and became hymn.
Despite his outlaw image, which would provide a rallying cry, template and inspiration for Nashville’s more ornery souls, especially in the 1970s when a back-to-Luckenbach basics swept over Music City, Cash was an intensely religious man, all the more for his own personal upheavals. His marriage to June Carter in 1968 signified a newfound grace, and his television show, premiering in 1969, allowed him to bestow that grace on his fellow performers, showcasing such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Derek and the Dominoes, and many others who crossed musical boundaries freely.
Celebrating what would have been John’s 80th birthday this February, Sony/Legacy has gone to church with the latest in its acclaimed Bootleg series. Those behind the mining of the Cashian vaults are two knowledgeable and caring archivists and historians – Gregg Geller and Steve Berkowitz; the current set, The Soul of Truth, the fourth, centers on Cash’s religious songs, and is comprehensive and revelatory in the mode of earlier Bootleg entries. The first, Personal File, is Johnny at his most stark, featuring nearly 50 of Cash’s private recordings of himself, singing into the mirror of faith and trial and tradition and his own wry sense of humor, “Galway Gal” to “If Jesus Ever Loved A Woman” to the yarn-spinning of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
It’s the kind of minimalist setting Rick Rubin would provide for Johnny beginning in 1993, continuing to the last days of his life. He finds within Cash’s weathered features and graveled voice the age-old gothic retributes of mountain balladry, staring down mortality in a magisterial reading of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” or an equally surprising choice, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” from American IV: The Man Comes Around. The fifth volume, A Hundred Highways, was completed posthumously, with the judgment day field holler of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and the last song he penned, the chilling prophecy of “Like The 309,” a foreshadow of the passage awaiting.