I’m late, but you didn’t think I’d let this day slip by without mention — a day that would have been Johnny Cash’s 78th birthday. I heard fans are paying homage by wearing black, but there has only ever been one and never will be another Man in Black. It’s sad that there is a perception among kids today that Johnny Cash was a Country singer. Yes, he was, but then so much more.
From June 7, 1969 to March 31, 1971, The Johnny Cash Show aired on ABC. I can’t even draw an equivalent with any other show today. It was a show that everyone from young kids (my brother and myself), our babysitters (who were tuning in, turning on and dropping out) and my father (a military officer) all planned our week around. You never knew who would show up as a guest on Johnny Cash’s show — everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. Many young singers say they got their first serious airplay when Johnny Cash went to bat for them and had them on the show. The range of music covered was astounding. Judy Collins came on and sang two Jacques Brel songs. Eric Clapton, Carl Perkins and Johnny traded guitar licks with Eric coming out behind in my humble opinion. (I write more extensively about The Johnny Cash Show and include that clip here.)
For an idea of Johnny Cash’s wide-ranging influence on musicians, you’d have to have read the tribute issue of Rolling Stone in the week after he died. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Bono, Wyclef Jean and various rappers listed him as an important influence. It’s not that they aspired to be Country singers, but that they all recognized in Johnny Cash a singer of unparalleled integrity: he sang his truth as he knew it.
He was also the old style American Christian I wish we had more of. He recognized his frailties, once saying, “Some people know just how to go straight to Heaven. I’m someone who has to get there one half mile a day.” He had a strong faith, but never waved it in anyone’s face or forced it on anyone. He just lived it. And that was inspiration enough. When he sang, with the voice of an Old Testament Prophet, you just had to sit up and listen. Rick Rubin, his last producer and a Jew, tells how Johnny once asked if he could take his hand and pray with him. Praying together became a ritual with the two of them, even during telephone conversations. Rubin says he felt blessed to be so honored by a man of faith and included in that faith, even if it wasn’t his own.
It’s also worth remembering, that at a time when established stars like Frank Sinatra, etc., were ignoring the turmoil of the Sixties, Johnny Cash was visiting college campuses — and being embraced by students who were also listening to The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. “The Man in Black” and “What is Truth?” came out of his concern that the issues being protested by Sixties youth weren’t being given proper attention.
Then there are Native Americans, who at that time, before the American Indian Movement, had no real voice in America. Johnny was embraced as one of their own, even though it turned out he was mistaken in thinking he had Cherokee blood. Didn’t matter. He was the first major star to foster the career of Native American singer Buffy Saint-Marie, he made a movie about The Trail of Tears, his wrote the immortal Ballad of Ira Hayes and he gave many concerts to enthusiastic Native audiences.
Of course, his work and concerts in prisons are the stuff of legend. Based on that, I’ve heard some call Johnny “the original Punk”. But he wasn’t — at least if you define a Punk as a nihilistic criminal. Johnny’s lyrics always packed an Old Testament wallop. In a Johnny Cash song, you could break the law, but you paid the price. You might “shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die” but then you’d have to acknowledge “I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free”. You could “be in the arms of your best friend’s wife” but then you’d get hung and your paramour would have to “walk these hills in a long black veil”. There was no free lunch and no Gangsta Life in Johnny Cash’s world. And he stood up as the premier example of a man who’d had to pay for his sins.
This attitude is probably one of the reasons no less an authority than Bob Dylan said of Cash: “Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him.”
And did we mention the music? Kick ass!
Thanks, Johnny, and Happy Birthday up in Heaven. There will never be another like you.