When I was a kid, Johnny Cash was a staple in my household, both on radio and TV. The J.C. that I first knew played for the inmates at Folsom Prison and sang “A boy named Sue,” “Dirty old egg suckin’ dog,” and “Flushed from the bathroom of your heart.” I did not particularly care for this Johnny Cash.
Later in life, I discovered the Johnny Cash of Sun Records. This Johnny Cash inhabited the dark edges of rockabilly playing “Get Rhythm,” “Big River,” and other edgy, energetic songs. Sadly, this J.C. was also responsible for “Luther played the boogie,” a song which possesses perhaps the worst chorus of all time. And, when taken in large doses, songs from this J.C. would begin to run together and all sound the same.
There was yet another Johnny Cash, one whom I avoided like possum pan-fried in goat lard. This J.C. was the Cash of the American West, one who wore black cowboy hats and spun tall tales. He enriched our nation’s musical heritage with memorable songs such as “Dorraine of Ponchartrain,” “When Papa played the dobro,” and “Hiawatha’s vision.” These songs would often feature spoken word stories about bigger-than-life characters from the wild west. The result was akin to a poor man’s William Shatner “singing” melodramatic ditties.
Hmmm. What a depressing blog this is. If each J.C. is rife with shortcomings, why bother to spend so much time and thought on The Man in Black? But here comes the payoff. After a lifetime of dismissing all of these J.C.’s, I discovered a true musical gem in the other J.C.: Johnny Cash in his final years. Nowhere else have I heard a voice that so exquisitely communicates a lifetime of pain, salvation, sorrow and joy. Listeners are drawn in to share the experiences of J.C.’s adventure-packed life simply by hearing that haunting tone. No longer do I care about the lyrical content or the musical banality. All that remains is a raw distillation of emotions and ordeals delivered by a dying man. To hear examples of this incomparable display of passion, try “Thirteen,” “Redemption“ and “The man who couldn’t cry” from the album American Recordings.