by Chris Davis
He Walked the Line
Johnny Cash was uncompromising, unafraid, and unbeatable.
BY CHRIS DAVIS (2003)
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." For close to 50 years those four words brought audiences screaming to their feet. Alas, no more. Death has finally claimed "The Man in Black," whose appeal was universal and whose body of work, when all is said and done, may turn out to be more influential than Elvis'. Unlike the King of Rock-and-Roll, who died young, leaving a beautiful corpse, Cash's longevity worked in his favor — a rare thing in the youth-obsessed world of popular music. He gave us something special: a voice that speaks not to one particular generation or time but to each of the seven ages of man. His artistry was matched in equal measure by an uncompromising sense of justice and an indomitable faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. But his faith was tempered with reality and could be fiercely critical of the world — and the industry he worked in — without ever lapsing into bitterness or cynicism.
Johnny Cash had a deep voice, a booming voice, but it was ragged and it could go flat in a hurry. A critic once said that the late Waylon Jennings proved he had balls by singing like someone was squeezing them in a vice. The same was true of Cash. But that big clumsy voice could express more emotion in a single syllable than most singers can wring from an entire song. When Cash sang gospel he could make the staunchest atheist long to believe, because sin never seemed more palpable and salvation never so necessary. And Cash, whose own failures of the flesh were well chronicled, could make believers tremble in awesome certainty of God's all-knowing might. When he sang that crazy hillbilly boogie that made Sun Records famous, his touch could be astonishingly light, his voice as sweet as brown sugar melting in a skillet. When he sang traditional country, he assumed the role of an epic storyteller, reminding us of disasters both natural ("Five Feet High and Rising") and man-made ("San Quentin"). He was equally gifted in comedy ("A Boy Named Sue") and tragedy ("Long Black Veil").
His big voice wavered — first from the weight of total honesty, later with the effects of disease — but it never stopped. Musical styles sprang up and burned out, but Cash kept singing the traditional American music he loved. Addiction couldn't stop the songs. Hard times couldn't keep him down. And most important, in spite of the fame that came his way, he never stopped singing for the "poor and the beaten down, living on the hopeless, hungry side of town."
When the 1960s exploded in a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colors, Johnny Cash went into mourning and donned a solemn suit of solid black. He was sympathetic to the hippie protesters who took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam, to the call for an end to segregation, and to meaningful social change in his beloved land of liberty. But he refused to grow his hair beyond his shoulders like the other country outlaws of his era. He didn't put on a paisley shirt and a peace-sign pendant or dress up in red, white, and blue. He likewise rejected the rhinestone-studded Nudie suits that were de rigueur for honky-tonk heroes of Cash's pedigree. Instead, he became "The Man in Black": a man who lived in a constant state of protest.
If nothing else, it was one hell of a gimmick. Cash owns black like Coke owns red. But it was more than that. Nothing about Cash was ever insincere. In "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," he tells the true story of a poor Pima Indian who became a war hero only to die drunk and abandoned in an America that had little use for redskins, or brownskins, or blackskins, or any skin that wasn't pale. In "Sunday Morning Coming Down," he sings about a man's day-to-day struggles with addiction and profound loneliness. In his over-the-top cover of Leonard Cohen's "The Mercy Seat," he addresses the awfulness of capital punishment. And this is just scratching the surface. Cash's body of work, taken as a whole, serves as an astute critique of the modern American condition.
Of course, Cash's tunes aren't all gloom and doom. "Ring of Fire," a song penned by his wife June Carter Cash (with Merle Travis), describes the utter helplessness that is part and parcel of love in full bloom. "Jackson," an up-tempo duet with June, tells the rollicking tale of what happens to youngsters when the fire of lust turns cold after the wedding and wandering eyes turn to wandering ways. And then there are novelty songs like "One Piece at a Time," which tells the story of an autoworker who can't afford to buy the product he makes so, one piece at a time, he smuggles a Cadillac out of the factory in his lunch box. On the surface it seems like a harmless goof, but it speaks directly to the humbling absurdities of working class life: The worker's "brand-new" Cadillac is a hodgepodge of makes and models, with a single tailfin, two headlights on one side, and one on the other. It's a loving metaphor for the cobbled-together life of America's resourceful working class.
In later years, as Cash performed songs by punk/metal maestro Glenn Danzig and covered tunes by Nine Inch Nails, it seemed as though his image was being exploited. The man who wore black on principle was being marketed to kids who wore black because they thought it was cool. But regardless of the motive, each of Cash's American recordings brought him a small army of new fans — without the benefit of extensive radio play or the support of the Nashville music industry.
"Oh I'd love to wear a rainbow every day," Cash sings in his signature song, "Man in Black." "And tell the world that everything's okay. But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back. Till things are brighter, I'm the man in black."
We can only hope that Cash is finally in that "better place" he sang about with such conviction — wearing a coat of many colors.