When I was growing up, country music was music for old people. It was a world that had nothing to do with me in my childhood introduction to music of my own; as important and as interesting as income tax and home insurance – it belonged to grown-ups who didn’t have the wherewithal to love the Beatles, Blondie or Gary Numan. But there was a certain power to it that did reach me in places, although I was too young to admit it at the time. One of the major proponents of this undeniable power was the voice, and face of Johnny Cash. I remember his lined, frowning face on weathered album covers and the deep resonance of his voice, embued with a sort of alien beauty. He was, to me, like Elvis’ older and less convinced brother, visiting from another world of trains and of prisons which stood as shadowy counterparts to Elvis’ joyous “Jailhouse Rock”. His music was for grown ups as well, and yet in a different way from other country music I’d ever heard. It wasn’t about irrelevance. It was about ideas that were beyond me at the time; despair, tortured love and redemption.
I suppose the old cliché comes to mind when reading about a legend that has past – that we really don’t know what we had until it’s gone. I think this is certainly true of country music’s establishment in Nashville, who effectively supplanted him and many of his contemporaries from country radio in favour of the big-haired and big-hatted younger artists, many of whom had ironically admired the man from their own childhoods. There is nothing particularly marketable about an old man singing about death from the standpoint of commercial radio and yet this is where country music comes from; a world of isolation, poverty and violence, not unlike the place out of which hip-hop springs. Many of the murder ballads that Cash sang during his 50 year career predated his own birth and were complete with the kind of raw imagery which would later be reflected in numbers like “Folsom Prsion Blues”. Perhaps it is this that former Def Jam founder and producer Rick Rubin saw in Cash before undertaking the now critically acclaimed American Recordings. The thug life was older and more far removed from Compton and Bedford Stuy than he, or anyone else, thought.
Johnny Cash’s death hit me harder than I ever suspected, I suppose because his music has only recently begun to make sense to me. Cash, having come out of a tradition which eluded me for most of my life, has in the end proven to be everything I think an artist should be – impassioned, frank, open-minded, and with a unique voice that is entirely compelling.In the end, Cash saw no walls musically, generationally or otherwise. To Cash, the kind of heartache found in Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and Trent Rezor’s “Hurt” are the same kind of heartache. Cash could see that the genres in which the sentiments are expressed are merely the vehicles for the ideas, and older than those genres themselves. This is an example of his genius as an interpreter, the kind we’ll never see in the same way again. Here is a man who has seen and done much, both positive and negative, and has lived out the consequences of both. Even if no autobiographical information existed, we would believe him because of the authenticity of the voice. We as listeners believe him because he operated within the province of the universal – loneliness, the need for redemption, the drive to harm and the equal drive to stop oneself from harming. Never have such themes been managed with such nakedness and lack of artiface. This is, in the end, entirely relevant to everyone and if such an overused term as “relevance” can be applied to music, surely this is the most meaningful.