Out of all of my favorite musicians, there is one artist that has a special place in my heart above all others.
When I was a kid, Johnny Cash has reached the second peak of a career that that waxed and waned through six decades. In those days, Cash was huge with his own TV show, the San Quentin Album, and A Boy Named Sue, which was a huge crossover hit. I felt that I had arrived in the big time when I saw him in concert in Kansas City, Missouri when I was in Junior High.
He broadcasted his TV show from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the old home of the Grand Ole Opry. Yet, he hosted artists on his show who would have never had seen the Grand Ole Opry stage if it were not for Johnny, including the radical protest folk singers of the day, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. He sang about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and Peace in the Valley and other hymns in the same show. He was the outlaw who in earlier days kicked out the footlights at the Ryman and was banned from the Grand Ole Opry and the friend of Evangelist Billy Graham appearing at many of his evangelistic events.
He opposed the Vietnam War, sang a protest song every now and then, and loved performing for hardened convicts. He literally gave the Nashville music industry the finger in a widely published photo, yet Middle America loved him. So did those on the fringes of society.
Yes, he was a drug addict with a long-term, reoccurring addiction to prescription pills which began way back in the 50’s when he opened shows for Elvis. His addiction nearly destroyed him at one point in his life and by all accounts, his second wife, June Carter Cash was the key figure in his recovery and redemption. In mid-life, he and June were finally married and she gave birth to their son, John Carter Cash.
His friends called him John or JR. He and Kris Kristofferson would always say, “I love you.” when they said goodbye. In the early nineties, Rick Rubin decided that he wanted to produce and record Johnny, but he wanted him to part with his signature sound which had grown tired after so many years. Instead he wanted to strip down the sound to Johnny and his guitar. Hence, the six critically acclaimed American Recordings were produced. The old Baptist country/folk singer and the young, barefoot, Jewish, hard rock producer became the best of friends.Tom Petty and Heartbreakers backed him up on one of the albums adding some new energy to the arrangements.
In his later years, he was plagued an exhaustive list of health issues and was unable to walk and barely able to see. Yet, he did some his best work artistically.
Cash is mysterious. No one would ever call him a great musician, his voice was unique, but not quality, especially in his latter years, his vocal chords were shot. His guitar playing was rudimentary. Yet, back in the day, when he performed,he owned the stage. To his dying day, the authenticity and artistry that came through his songs make every song he covered more his song than its original artist’s.
Flawed, honest, compassionate toward the disenfranchised, true to himself, and an artist to the end, Cash is my hero.
This post was originally published February 25,2010.