“Country music used to represent horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”
(J.R. Cash, February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003)
Six Years Later,
Ten Reasons why JOHNNY CASH Still Matters:
1. “LUTHER PLAYED THE BOOGIE”
Without a red hot and blue band to back it all the way up, even a Man in Black’s powers weaken considerably. That’s why, before first setting out to conquer the world as we knew it, Johnny Cash planted firmly behind him that Tennessee Three so widely known and regarded as Marshall Grant (bass), W.S. “Fluke” Holland (drums), and guitarist-extrordinaire Luther Monroe Perkins (no relation to Carl though). And what stellar accompanists they were …particularly the deceptively unassuming Luther (“he’s been dead for a couple of years but just doesn’t know it yet” is how Johnny often introduced his laconic right-hand guitarist on stage back in the day). Once asked why he persisted in rooting himself to the mere bottom rungs of most every boom-chicka-chord he fingered whilst his contemporaries raged blindly up and down their respective necks, Luther drolly replied “well, I guess they’re still huntin’ for the right notes. But I already found ‘em.”
2. “BIG RIVER”
Johnny’s lean, mean vintage performance persona is best exemplified – and fortunately forever preserved in perfectly kinescopic black and white – courtesy of that late-Fifties Army recruiting propaganda-fest Country Style USA. The rending therein of “Big River” in particular is absolutely astounding to see and hear even now, as Cash attacks the song – especially its signature G-chord flourishes – with a fervor even Don Everly at his amphetamine crankiest would be heart-pressed to match. Head bobbing, jerking and weaving as he defiantly spits out each and every stanza on behalf on Uncle Sam, the man is nothing short of, in the words of no less an expert than Marty Stuart, “wired and on fire.” Check this full performance out on the newly re-released Johnny Cash Anthology DVD and thrill for yourself.
3. “THE MAN, HIS WORLD, HIS MUSIC”
Then, while you’re at the video store, grab as well that freshly-restored issue of Robert Elfstrom’s Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music. In the great Arriflex-on-the-wall tradition of that other perfectly timeless 1969 documentary Gimme Shelter, the camera tails Johnny as he sadistically fondles a crow in his backyard, rummages through the broken remains of his childhood home, ruminates at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, waxes extremely philosophic on his tour bus and, you bet, rips it up in front of a typically receptive captive audience. All in a hard day night’s work for the toughest-working man in country music, no? Meanwhile, back home on the small screen…..
4. “HELLO, I’M JOHNNY CASH”
Of the dozens upon dozens of musical highlights throughout his classic ABC-Television series, most riveting perhaps was 1971’s special Johnny Cash On Campus episode, wherein The Man hauled crew, cameras, the student body of Vanderbilt University and even Neil Young just for good measure directly into the Ryman Auditorium for an evening which climaxed with the first-ever public performance of his brand new signature tune, “Man In Black.” “I wear it for the thousands who have died, believing that the Lord was on their side,” Johnny defiantly sang. “Introducing another new single Johnny Cash won’t be able to perform at the White House,” the Columbia Records press release proudly announced the following week.
5. “SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN”
But Man in Black does not live by social comment alone. Indeed, it was quite common for Johnny to invite his Johnny Cash Show guests back to the homestead for a post-taping respite of spirit and song. One momentous evening when Johnny’s guitar was passed ‘round and everyone present was told to try out a new one, Graham Nash offered “Marrakesh Express,” Kris Kristofferson premiered “Me And Bobby McGee,” then Bob Dylan applied his brand new boudoir voice to a plaintive “Lay Lady Lay.” As if this wasn’t all entertainment enough, the inimitable Shel Silverstein then decided to test-drive a strange new number he hadn’t even considered shopping across Music City just yet. Johnny wanted to hear it though…..
6. “A BOY NAMED SUE”
“That’s the most cleverly written song I’ve ever heard,” The Man responded, and luckily June Carter thought enough to stuff Shel’s cheat sheet into her husband’s bag before they departed for the next day’s recording session over at San Quentin State Prison. “I didn’t even know the lyrics,” Johnny recalled of making his quickest, biggest hit. “I had to put the words on a music stand in front of me. I told ’em I want to sing a song called ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Well they laughed, you know, and I said, ‘No, it’s not what you think. Let me sing it to you.’ I read the lyrics off the paper in front of me, and that was the record.” And that summer, only the Rolling Stones and their honky tonk women could keep Sue off the very top of America’s Hot One Hundred chart.
But my own fave rave from among Johnny’s voluminous 500-album, 1500-song-and-counting catalog was cut the night of September 10, 1969 at Columbia Music Row Studios, Nashville. By now Carl Perkins (no relation) had just replaced the late great Luther on guitar, yet his patented blue suede notes perfectly matched Johnny, line by lascivious line, in positively sneering Billy Edd Wheeler’s ode to the fairer of sex: “What she does simply walkin’ down the sidewalks of that city makes me think about a stray cat gettin’ fed,” our hero snarled, “and I got tiny white blisters in my throat from tryin’ to ease my nervous tension takin’ all them pills. She’s got a body, oh yeah!” Why Johnny, you dirty old egg-sucking dog you!
8. “BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN”
He first spotted her when, as a high school senior, his class took a trip to see the Carter Family play the Grand Ole Opry. “I’d liked what I heard of her on the radio,” Johnny recalled in his 1997 autobio, “and I really liked what I saw of her from the balcony at the Ryman Auditorium.” Six years later, now a performer himself, Johnny was back at the Opry …and so was Valerie June Carter (hot off a water-skiing adventure with Elvis, I kid you not). “You and I are going to get married someday” were among Johnny’s first-ever words to the already-married young woman. “Really?” she replied. “Well, good. I can’t wait.” And a decade later they were, yes, married in a fever, and remained so until she passed, four months ahead of her man, in 2003.
9. “GOOD OLD AMERICAN GUEST”
It was from the balcony of the inappropriately elegant Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto where I personally first saw both June and Johnny perform together, sometime during those dreaded mid-Eighties. June, hotter than a pepper sprout and THEN some, joyously high-stepped her dancing shoes clear off and over the wax-painted heads of that austere audience, Johnny bar-stormed through his many many hits at near-Ramone intensity and, ‘way over in the corner on the Telecaster? Why, ladies and gentlemen, it was none other than Buddy Holly’s last bass player, Waylon Jennings!
10. “AMERICAN RECORDINGS”
Thank heavens the mighty Rick Rubin picked up on how the Eighties had stupidly squandered the abundant Cash bounty on a series of ill-advised “big hat” productions and all-star Yesteryear groupings, and instinctively knew just what to do: Set Johnny up on a stool in his living room – or, even better, the Viper Room, throw up a couple of mics, simply press “record” and let the magic flow. The initial result was that truly alt.-country masterpiece “Delia’s Gone,” followed by a further four full Rubin-directed discs culminating with what was to be Johnny’s fifty-fourth (!) and benedictory hit, “Hurt.” P.S.: and the Old Testament video for that one actually won Johnny an MTV Award …but alas, the man never made it to New York in time to collect. Just as well, I bet both he, you and I would agree.