<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Why We Still Need Johnny Cash
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Why We Still Need Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's crackling baritone has graced American ears through time of war, revolution, social uprising, and prison overcrowding. With his non-jugemental stories of fallen men acknowledging thier wrong, Cash still reigns as the teller of the American condition, decades after his first album.

by Nicholas Patterson
Illustrations by Michael Lorefice


Johnny Cash is a wanted man again. Wanted by old fans, wanted by alt-country enthusiasts, wanted by alterna-rockers, punks, hardcore kids, and critics. A young hardcore girl in Boston has a tattoo of a bust of Johnny Cash on her arm with the quote, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Movies such as "Jackie Brown" and "Gone in 60 Seconds" feature Cash tracks on their soundtracks. Kids across the country are squeezing Johnny Cash albums onto their shelves between Snoop Dogg and Limp Bizkit CDs.

Cash's impressive output of reissues and new songs reflects this rising tide of enthusiasm. In the last year, he has released a box set, Love, God, Murder; re-released the classic albums Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin; and put out American III: Solitary Man, an album of new songs and covers. In February, Cash took home a Grammy for the Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Solitary man," making him a Grammy winner in five separate decades.

Some credit is due to Cash's producer for the singer's recent resurgence in popularity. Industry bad-boy Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Slayer, Geto Boys) signed Cash in 1993. The three critically-acclaimed Cash albums their partnership has yielded (American Recordings, Unchained, American III) have brought Cash to a younger audience.

Ironically and sadly, the decline of Cash's health may be contributing to his popularity. He suffers from Shy-Drager Syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease which has made many fans aware of the 68-year-old Man in Black's mortality and motivated them to revisit his music. A televised tribute to Cash at Hammerstein Ballroom two summers ago -- featuring Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Chris Isaak -- also fanned the flames of interest.

But none of these factors could have rekindled interest in Johnny Cash to its current level unless his music was as surprisingly in tune with today's culture.

Johnny Cash has enjoyed peaks of popularity in the mid to late 1950s, the late 1960s, and since the mid-1990s. In each period Cash brought something to the popular culture table that was missing: balls, heart, and an unabashedly non-judgmental spirituality. It's easy to identify with his public persona -- that of a sinner who wants to be saved but enjoys sinning. The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. He tries to be good but can't help being a bad-ass who is constantly tempted to do wrong.

Cash invigorated the early days of rock with an outlaw, no bullshit toughness masking the heart of a traditional romantic. While Elvis was singing about Jailhouse Rock, Cash was singing about killing a man "just to watch him die." If Elvis would steal a young girl's heart with his gyrating pelvis, Cash would break a man's jaw so he could run away with his daughter. At the same time, Cash helped rock and modern country gain an early audience by tying his music to traditional folk/country love songs. And the singer never hid his religious convictions, including spirituals for example on popular, secular albums.

Cash reached the pinnacle of his commercial and popular success in the late 1960s/early 1970s with the release of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). The latter stayed at the top of Billboard's album charts for four weeks. At a time when the popular topics of rock were free love and social and political revolution, a 37-year-old Cash kept America's ear with songs of love ("Ring of Fire"), actions with consequences ("Folsom Prison Blues"), and religion ("He Turned the Water Into Wine"). The Man in Black's idea of revolution was more local and practical; he protested police brutality ("Starkville City Jail"), a corrupt corrections system ("San Quentin"), and prejudice against Native Americans ("the Ballad of Ira Hayes"). In a time of political and social uncertainty, Cash provided a reassuring voice steeped in social and religious tradition with a deep sympathy for society's underdogs.

Cash has been enjoying a second renaissance of interest since the mid-1990s. Rick Rubin has been his unlikely but effective champion, masterfully producing three Cash albums on the American Recordings label, and cleverly enlisting rock luminaries to sing on the latter two of these albums. Covers of songs by younger artists -- including Danzig, Tom Waits, Beck, Soundgarden, U2, Tom Petty, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Will Oldham -- have also helped Cash attract a younger audience. Most of these songs were well chosen, lesser-known chestnuts that fit well with Cash's rough-and-tumble persona, particularly Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Nick Cave's "Mercy Seat." Interestingly, the tracks that sound the most forced and inappropriate have been more popular and less nuanced songs by U2 ("One") and Tom Petty ("I Won't Back Down").

Yet Cash's recent success is grounded in the resonance of his themes with today's audiences. In a time when girl/boy bands and hip-hop dominate the music industry commercially, Cash offers an appealing alternative of mature love, remorseful violence, and traditional religion. Having lived through enough hard times, heartache, and drug abuse to fuel a marathon run of VH-1 "Behind The Music" specials, Cash knows of what he speaks. But unlike most of the stars featured in such documentaries, he's still on his feet making music that people are interested in. His love songs resonate with modern listeners as songs of experience rather than of innocence or half-baked juvenile braggadocio.

Although Cash may not have much in common with bubble gum boy/girl bands, he does share some turf with hip-hop's gangsta rappers. As Quentin Tarantino points out in the liner notes for Cash's Murder disc (from the Love, God, Murder box set), little separates gangsta rappers', "tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash's tales of backwoods thug life." Like gangsta rappers, Cash sings about violence, murder, drugs, and prison. He peers into the minds of serial killers ("Thirteen"), drug addicts ("Cocaine Blues"), and prisoners ("The Wall"). However, as Tarantino points out, Cash's songs differ from most gangsta rap in that he never lets his protagonists escape from regret. Most gangsta rap describes pimps and hustlers flexin' in expensive cars, with women, drugs, and money smackin' down anyone who steps to them. Cash's songs, on the other hand, are sung by characters after they have committed their crimes, when they are in prison and often on death row. His songs have an overriding morality and humanity. In the words of "Folsom Prison Blues:" "I know I had it comin', I know I can't be free, but that train keeps a rollin' and that's what tortures me." His protagonists are sinners who know they've sinned, regret their actions, but still know it is in their nature to sin again.

The regret in Cash's songs of rebels and outlaws is refreshing in a time when most violent entertainment offers little morality. Politicians blame the entertainment industry for aiming violent music, television programs, and movies at America's youth. Media moguls pay lip service to the need to scale back violence in the media and then don't do anything about it. Parents have a responsibility to shape their children's morality and police what they listen and watch. However, most kids get access to what they want to hear and see; and despite the claims of many artists, they are influenced, at least in part, by explicit entertainment.

Cash couples a strong sympathy for the underdog with a sense of morality that is welcome in the cynical days of a constantly degenerating drug war. In the 1980s and 1990s, the government engaged in an unprecedented prison-building program and instituted stiff mandatory sentencing guidelines rather than focusing on treatment. Rehabilitation has been traded for warehousing, and prisoners are increasingly viewed as unredeemable menaces to society. In comparison, the outlaws and prisoners in Cash's songs are men who have done wrong, but are men nonetheless. Cash's songs take the perspective of fugitives and prisoners ("Orleans Parish Prison"), feel their pain ("Going To Memphis"), and explain the motives behind their crimes ("The Sound of Laughter").

In addition, Cash put his money where his mouth was and performed numerous free shows at prisons during his career. Two of his most appealing and popular albums were live concerts from prisons. Modern audiences listening to these recently re-released albums can still hear the intensity of his performances and feel the strong connection he forged with his audiences. "I was in the prison band when I first saw him in San Quentin, I was impressed with his ability to take 5,000 convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers," Merle Haggard is quoted as saying on Cash's own website. "That's pretty hard to do."

Cash also offers a non-judgmental embrace of religion that few other modern musicians muster. Most of today's rock stars who even deal with religion in their music make audiences squirm by either insulting it (see Marilyn Manson's whole repertoire) or push their beliefs on listeners (see DC Talk). Cash, on the other hand, unabashedly mixes straightforward traditional spirituals such as "Why Me Lord" or "Oh, Bury Me Not" with his secular songs.

These tracks fit comfortably with the songs that surround them because of the sense of tradition Cash brings to the songs and their focus on declarations of personal faith rather than conversion of non-believers. It is possible to listen to the beauty of these songs as delivered in Cash's world-weary baritone and either detachedly hear echoes of America's religious traditions and/or find spiritual solace. Cash's persona as a sinner who reaches for salvation but knows his own weaknesses makes it easy to listen to his songs of devotion. He offers his songs of faith for people to take or leave but doesn't push listeners to accept his perspective or blame them if they don't. Cash conveys a sense of yearning and unjudgmental belief that is very appealing in a culture where globalization and mass media uproot tradition, family, and faith. It's a world that needs Cash, and he hasn't abandoned us yet.

This article was previously printed in Reckon Magazine.

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