Johnny Cash: Haunting past the grave
Cash didn’t really sing the typical Nashville honky-tonk songs crafted around catchy hook lines, while many of the themes of his songs echoed those of prototypical country songs, and while he sang ple
It is now almost six and a half years since Johnny Cash left the planet, and somehow, not surprisingly he still remains a vital force, not only as a singer, but as an inspiration, an inspiration that goes far beyond music. Cash was an American giant, and American is important because in many ways his life as well as his legend mirrored America, the good and the bad.
For most of his career, Cash was considered a country-western singer, and for quite a while he was certainly part of Nashville’s royalty. That’s where you’d find him in record stores, and of course he was from the country, growing up on a farm in Arkansas. But Cash didn’t really sing the typical Nashville honky-tonk songs crafted around catchy hook lines, while many of the themes of his songs echoed those of prototypical country songs, and while he sang plenty of cowboy ballads, he wasn’t really western either. Since he started at Sun Records in Memphis, with several other rockabilly legends, he’s often considered rockabilly, but he didn’t rock in the way that Carl Perkins or Eddy Cochran did. In many ways, Cash was actually the ultimate folksinger, with a folksinger’s sense of tradition. But he was way too tough and wicked to fit the stereotypical image of a ’60s folksinger. So he was a combination of all of the above, but as he wrote about Bob Dylan, he was “lots of other things.”
I always knew who Johnny Cash was. As a real little kid, I heard “I Walk The Line,” on the radio and I have some foggy memory of kids singing some kid’s parody in the driveways behind the row houses where I grew up. In 1963 it was impossible not to hear “Ring Of Fire.” But I wasn’t listening to country radio then, and “Ring Of Fire” was a rare crossover to Top 40 radio. The folk DJ’s didn’t play him either. However Cash songs started appearing on albums by such folksingers as Ian & Sylvia and Joan Baez. In 1964, Cash appeared on the cover of Sing Out! (the folksong magazine), which included an article by singer-songwriter Peter La Farge. Cash had just recorded Bitter Tears, an entire and at the time controversial album of songs about the plight of the American Indian, many of them written by La Farge. The previous summer, Cash appeared at the Newport Folk Festival.