Johnny Cash dreamed our dreams for us. His songs were huge, unfettered visions that cascaded down through the halls of American history. As they rumbled, these dreams gathered our shared symbolic debris like metal to magnet: fire and damnation, a solitary train whistle, soldiers limping by, prayers unfolding, marriages lasting, marriages imploding, working men hanging on, larger than life men on their knees, men and women of all kinds contending with a lingering psychic titter from too many drinks or too many pills or too many whores or too many wars.
Cash carried with him that necessary American schizophrenia—we don’t like our heroes all good or all bad. He was the quintessential man with two faces. There are evil songs from a God-fearing man ("Delia's Gone"), or impossibly good songs from a man aware of the dark shadow that stretches across his heart ("I Walk The Line"). And all those wonderful story songs ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Don't Take Your Guns To Town") where the narrator's morality was revealed when you least expected.It's ironic that before he died, Johnny was embraced by a young alternative audience after the 90s country boom ignored him. Here's a man who remained on the inside flap of American culture and politics for the better part of 30 years. He hosted a number one television variety show (1968-71), befriended presidents and preachers, even turned in the most menacing Columbo cameo ever. Even after his death in 2004, Cash continues to define cool for a generation that can't seem to come up with its own icons.
His voice was as dry as dust, a dolorous rumble that laid bare 50 years of stone hard desire. He
best made his case with just that voice and stark guitar playing, yet how he jostled a world awake with this simplicity. Cash made a song vivid via the inexplicable and mysterious qualities we can only call the "grain" of the voice. As they tumbled out of his mouth, lines like “I fell in to a burnin’ ring of fire” or “Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone” sound as if they'd grown out of the dirt beneath his feet.
His songs echoed a lifetime's worth of arcane fables and common folklore. Although the “Old, Weird America” is now ubiquitous, obnoxious and without meaning, Johnny Cash lived in it and told its stories, before they had a name for it. Yet out of Cash's voice something small and resolute often escaped, leaving us with an intuitive sense of that quicksilver beauty in life we can never define. All that--and he’s Rosanne's old man to boot.
The latest release in his series of Rick Rubin-recorded stark song cycles, called American VI: Ain't No Grave, is the sixth and final installment of Cash's acclaimed American Recordings album series. American VI is a metaphysical country-folk record, if such a thing exists. It's about
salvation, friendships, family, faith, Jesus and the inevitability of suffering and the price of survival. If you're young and new to Johnny Cash, seek out his older Columbia records before listening to the American series--they can be too cold, too private and almost Biblical in theirrendering of life. American VI is no different; it's the testimony of an old and ill man.
Once he called my house as I was assigned do a Q&A with him. And he said those
famous words---"Hi, this is Johnny Cash." I couldn't speak for 15 seconds.
We all knew Johnny Cash, in a way. I miss the resolute morality he brought to music, and just knowing he was in the world. Damn, life, unforgiving.