Johnny Cash was big like his country, and his catalogue of music was as sprawling as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Traditional ballads, country classics, blues, folk, gospel, rockabilly, story songs complete with spoken narration, patriotic songs, love songs, and near the end of his life, some stunning covers of contemporary songwriters — it all came together somehow when Cash laid it down.
Like any artist who works steadily for nearly 50 years, Cash invariably produced uneven work; he recorded so many songs, made so many albums, that more than a few are forgettable. And like any star whose image becomes shrouded in myth, his persona both served and limited his art. At times, the figure of the Man in Black loomed too large over his music — particularly on his final albums, which were powerful but not immune to a certain degree of hubris and contrivance. By and large, though, Cash’s self-styled identity became him well, and in the end he became it.
He was one of the last figures of American consensus, with admirers from three generations across the cultural spectrum. Many reasons have been advanced for his nearly unprecedented appeal, but the simplest explanation of all is that he wrote and sang great songs for a very long time, in a way that generally ignored fashion, thereby transcending it. A corollary explanation is that he tapped into an older America that most of us never saw, but remember somehow. That older America was harder to characterize politically than the technological society we live in today, and so for most of his career Cash was claimed by listeners of every conceivable political stripe. But his songs and his manner reminded us of an old truth, that there are no politics in experience. Politics only comes with interpretation. Cash’s music stuck with experience and left interpretation to others.
So while he sang to and for the downtrodden — as eagerly pointed out in obituaries by the BBC and the New York Times — he also played at the Nixon White House and hung around with Billy Graham. Cash even telephoned Richard Nixon to wish him a Merry Christmas in 1974, the year he resigned the presidency. He wrote some of the most lurid and despairing songs in popular music, but he also wrote innumerable songs extolling simple pleasures or the bliss of love. At the height of the Vietnam War, he wrote the patriotic “Ragged Old Flag,” which took on new life on the Internet after 9/11. And he wrote devotional songs by the dozen, including “Man in White,” about Paul on the road to Damascus. Our popular culture is much more comfortable with Cash ‘s darker-hued alter ego, and that’s probably as it should be. But he was no less compelling, no less human, as a penitent than he was as a hell-raiser. Those who prefer one Cash to another are within their rights, of course, but they have a less than complete picture of what made his music so powerful.
It all started with the voice, a low, rich baritone that made even pedestrian songs impossible to ignore. The voice deepened and grew husky with age and ill health, until by his final albums it was the sound of a man living in the End Times. Even then, Cash had the ability of the greatest vocalists to inhabit a song, whether he had written it himself or not. Even his Generation X fans are learning something about this gift. In 1996, Cash covered a song from the “grunge” rock band Soundgarden called “Rusty Cage.” It was one of the hardest, most electrified sounds he’d ever put to record, but the words still came out loud and clear, delivered in a voice that somehow got deeper and deeper as the song went on. After the Cash version of “Rusty Cage” was released, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who had written it, was amazed at how many people were suddenly complimenting his lyrical abilities. He realized that Cash’s unique vocal style directed listeners to the words more than his own version of the song had done: “When Johnny sings a song, you listen to what he has to say.”
We listened also because Johnny Cash carried himself in a way that evoked respect, even awe. He was able to break through to Generation X-ers raised on irony, and he had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, but he never indulged in the self-parody so prized by postmodernists. He began each concert by saying “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and being Johnny Cash meant something. Compare this to U2’s Bono, a rock star who claims a deep affinity for Cash’s music and who in his early career was viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a symbol of certain values and ideals. But then he took his band on a tour called “Popmart” and spent years teaching his fans that it was all just a pose, that the name of the game was commerce after all. When they didn’t buy, he backtracked and resumed singing about Third World dissidents. If he were to say, “Hello, I’m Bono,” it could only evoke a laugh or a shrug.
Because of his catalogue of bad-man songs, Cash has been called a godfather of gangsta rap. His legendary line from “Folsom Prison Blues” — “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” — is frequently cited in this context. But while Cash’s songs may feature all manner of mayhem, his protagonists suffer deeply for their deeds, both physically and spiritually. The narrator in “Folsom Prison Blues” is genuinely anguished by what he has done: “When I hear that whistle blowing/I hang my head and cry.” And he is tormented by the sound of distant trains carrying the innocent, who are free to enjoy a life he has squandered: “I’ll bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car/They’re probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars…” Forty years after writing that song, Cash emerged with perhaps his most savage murder ballad, “Delia.” Youthful purveyors of shock rock, eager to claim Cash as one of their own, focused only on the murder deed, not the perspective. They didn’t seem to hear the mournful cry in Cash’s voice, or the haunting lines where the narrator hears “the patter of Delia’s feet” in his jail cell. Nobody gets away with anything in Johnny Cash songs. One way or another, to borrow another phrase of his, “the man comes around.” You couldn’t find a moral universe further from gangsta rap, or most other pop music, for that matter.
Besides being a great loss to our musical heritage, Johnny Cash’s passing means that America has lost one of its few remaining human landmarks. They don’t make shadows in his size anymore.