I Hear the Train A-Comin

Johnny Cash, 1932-2003

• I was in the sixth grade in 1969, reading a feature about Johnny Cash in the national kiddie tabloid Weekly Reader. Cash was 37, ancient by youth-culture standards, but lauded as a prime influence and mentor by such rockers as Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Band. On the strength of the Weekly Reader, I went out, bought Cash's single "A Boy Named Sue" with "San Quentin" that afternoon, and fell in love with Cash's oddly quavering baritone, hell-raising sensibility and brazen potty mouth. Shortly afterward, I was moved to sacrifice several weekly allowances for the entire Johnny Cash at San Quentin album, the wildest 30 minutes in the country-music canon. Bear in mind that country was viewed as being as hip as Howdy Doody by sophisticates of the day, but this was country music that rock & roll insurrectionists could get behind: raw, tuff, surly, anti-authority and as real as a cowboy boot to the teeth.

• On the heels of the success of "A Boy Named Sue," Cash sang a soul-stirring duet of "Girl From the North Country" on Dylan's Nashville Skyline album. The performance was so poignant, the meeting of cultures such a profound event that no one even seemed to remember that Dylan had already recorded the song solo back in 1963.

• On a roll, Cash got his own ABC television show. The very first episode featured Cash and Dylan re-creating their "North Country" magic—at a time when Dylan was still a reclusive figure whose every rare utterance was viewed as an edict from the soul and conscience of America. People forget, but this was the weightiest rock & roll TV moment since the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Johnny made it happen.

The Johnny Cash Show ran a brief but memorable two years, during which time he hosted the likes of such folk-singing counterculturists as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie; gave us the only American TV appearance of a then-smack-addled Eric Clapton's Derek & the Dominoes; and single-handedly revived the career of forgotten rockabilly god/fellow Sun Records alum Carl Perkins, whom he'd hired for his band, by featuring him on the show almost every week.

• Cash singles of the era such as "What Is Truth" and "The Man in Black" would outrage today's conservative political standards, but these dire pronouncements from the most visible man in country music—not some slogan-spewing yippie kid, but a steel-jawed, full-grown man's man—went a long way toward changing mainstream mores about war, bigotry, tolerance and prison reform. No figure in the history of country music ever made a greater social impact or took more professional risks in the process.

• As I began to realize that great things had happened in music before my birth, I discovered Cash's Sun Records output, which will forever remain the cornerstone of his formidable legacy. Two-minute operettas such as "Big River," "Folsom Prison Blues," "There You Go," "Home of the Blues," "Hey Porter" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" convey matters of the heart and soul, conditions of the troubled and humble, in straightforward poetics, as stirring as a Smoky Mountain sunrise. Cash's gift for simple, impressionistic lyrics coupled with his spellbinding, world-weary singing and guitarist Luther (no relation to Carl) Perkins' signature tick-tock method are timeless and continue to shape American music of nearly every stripe.

• "Ring of Fire" is the only played-to-death honky-tonk jukebox staple that doesn't send me into convulsions when I hear it. In fact, its power to rouse men and women into flights of giddy bourbon abuse and personal violence remains undiminished even after the 1000th listening; this is perhaps Cash's finest moment.

• Following a couple of decades on the commercial sidelines, Johnny was at it again in the '90s, somehow becoming bigger than he'd been in the 1960s and '70s. Armed simply with That Voice, an acoustic guitar and a batch of new songs, he cast a spell over a new generation of hillbilly songsters, metal thrashers, screaming punks and neo-folkies alike. Everyone from Glenn Danzig, Tom Petty, Mike Ness, Bono and Tom Waits worshiped at his shrine; Cash became a croaking, craggy-faced icon of timeless cool, a figure whose significance could be aspired to but never matched.

• Cash's unwavering faith was the very foundation of his being; this was a man who, had he been locked in a room for a couple of days with Osama, might have converted him to Christianity. Never a zealot, never admonitory, never an I'm-Scoring-Points-for-Jesus fanatic, Cash simply believed and wished to share with others a force of Sweet Benevolence in the universe that could salvage your soul as Cash himself had been redeemed. I hope he was right and that at this very moment he's a-moonin' and a-turtle-dovin' up on a cloud somewhere, forever reunited with his beloved June, as theirs was among the most touching, fairytale romances known to mankind.

 
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