Johnny Cash, 1932-2003

September 16, 2003

Along with Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, who died in Nashville Friday of complications from diabetes after a battle with autonomic neuropathy, was the most important country artist of the modern era. Yet oddly enough for someone working in a tradition-oriented genre, he sounded like no one else and left no sonic heirs. If country music means white music, then Cash was very white—unlike his great fellow Sun Records rockabillies, Elvis and Jerry Lee, he showed no Afro-American influence. But he also never leaned on instrumental signifiers of country like fiddle, pedal steel, or banjo, and he never displayed the cultural defensiveness of country. He operated from a position of confidence that left him open to other influences, particularly 1960s folk.

At the height of his popularity and power in the late ’60s, he was playing the White House, San Quentin, the Newport Folk Festival, and Vietnam, socializing with Bob Dylan and Billy Graham, appealing to both sides of an ever wider social divide while remaining clearly identified as a country singer. On his only recently released live CD, Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden from 1969, he follows up the patriotic tearjerker “Remember the Alamo” with the anti-war tearjerker “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” And it works. How did he pull it off?

If Cash personified country, the projection of that personification was the part he shared with rock and blues and at least the Dylan-Baez wing of folk. Cash represented a tradition, but not by placing himself inside that tradition. Instead, he placed the tradition inside his very large, believable, imposing, likable self. This was offset musically not by the full trappings of whatever was the current country sound, but by a minimal and slightly weird instrumentation, like the boom-ticka-boom of the original TennesseeTwo.

He did not fare as well inside the layered country pop that took hold in the ’70s, and he did not fit into the overproduced, watered-down country rock that followed. Yet he was the pioneer in communicating the modern country image, and in that way was truly the Elvis of country, the grandfather of all country videos.

Of course it all depended on the voice, an impossibly deep and wide, confidently masculine sound that communicated tenderness, sorrow, and suffering as well. And if at times it seemed to wander off pitch, that just came across as honesty. In fact, it’s tempting to call his special gift recitation rather than singing, and reach outside of music to someone like John Wayne for comparison.

Except Cash encompassed much more than Wayne. He was the cowboy and the Indian, the sinner and the believer, the patriot and the protester. Some of this was skill, and a lot of behind-the-scenes hard thinking. Some of it was faith. Cash was blessed with a public Christianity that complemented the sense of tradition and tolerance in his music while allowing for a grim yet hopeful perspective on the human condition—one with room for both hymns and murder ballads, paradise and fire-and-brimstone. Thus permitting an interesting spectrum of subject matter and variety of perspectives.

But maybe there’s a less recognized source of inspiration as well. Like so many country singers, Cash grew up on the family farm. But his particular farm was part of an experimental community set up by the New Deal in Arkansas. And if you look at Cash’s work, you see the New Deal all over it. There are all the country virtues of family and hard work and religion, and the post-war energies of upward mobility and modernization. But there’s also the New Deal feeling for social justice, national unity, tolerance, and progress. And if you listen close enough you notice that evangelical Christian country boy Johnny Cash had a feel for the urban secular left.

So Cash wasn’t just the country Elvis, or the musical John Wayne. He was a culturally successful parallel to the failed Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner trying to extend the New Deal while the Vietnam War on one side and the Civil Rights Act on the other were tearing its coalition apart.

The confident masculinity and confident whiteness with which Cash staked out his cultural position in the ’60s no longer feel accessible as cultural options. White men are so angry they’re getting ready to let Karl Rove revoke the New Deal, not just bring it to a halt. Cash was friends with Carter and Gore, less successful in Reagan-Bush America. Maybe no one could sound like him today.

In Johnny Cash’s last decade, rap-metal producer Rick Rubin would revive both their careers by reconfiguring Cash with a bad-boy rock persona, folk tastefulness, and country authenticity. It didn’t always work, but it did bring Cash back into the spotlight as an outsider. The opening cut on their fourth collaboration, The Man Comes Around, features a no longer full-voiced Cash reciting/singing his own Book of Revelation-inspired composition. It’s scary because we hear him fading away and it’s scary because by some trick of his art, he’s more present than ever. Ominous and comforting, he was never as simple as he sounded—not at the beginning, and not at the end.