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Cash on the Barrelhead

Long live the Man in Black

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Johnny Cash was as American as apple pie. He was also as American as an ex-con, a drug abuser, and a preacher man. As visually iconic as any popular music artist since Elvis Presley, the symbolism of his black clothes rang true because you knew it went way beyond the surface. In a culture rife with dilettantes, John R. Cash was the real thing -- the sort of man who could play a show at Folsom Prison and win over the crowd -- both white and black -- within a couple of songs. These people sensed the man wasn't about any bullshit, and as such he was received as visiting royalty. Cash, of course, played right into their hands: "This album's being recorded for Columbia Records," Cash told the audience. "That means you can't say hell or shit or anything like that." No matter, really. Even if he wasn't able to sway this toughest of crowds, you still get the feeling he'd have been able to take on anybody in the place.

A few years back, Cash put out a three-CD collection of songs, variously titled Love, God, and Murder. Consisting of Johnny's greatest hits concerning each of those topics, the three records are all equally moving -- just as, to Cash, the topics were all of equal importance. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Johnny could go from a gospel song to a love song to a murder ballad in no time flat; these were, after all, just different aspects of common human experience. The fact that he was willing to face those kinds of hard facts, and then turn around and create art from them, was what made him more real, more authentic, than most other singers.

All those country outlaws of the 1970s -- Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser -- probably wouldn't have existed without there first having been a Johnny Cash. Johnny, of course, wasn't so much an outlaw as he was brutally honest. That way, if you liked him, you got no surprises. If you didn't, well, that was all right too -- usually. (Cash once broke every light at the front of the Grand Ole Opry stage in a fit of anger -- "There were 52 lights, and I wanted to break all 52, which I did," Cash said matter-of-factly in a 1993 interview.)

The music we call alt-country also owes a debt (and probably its very existence, to some extent) to Johnny Cash. Equal parts rockabilly, gospel, and rough-hewn country, his music was American to the core -- and it didn't matter what kind of American you were. Johnny was able to see the beauty in any kind of music, as long as it had an authenticity, an honesty, to it.

Rick Rubin, no dummy, knew the glory days of Johnny Cash, as well as the copious iconography. The famed producer saw that the 1980s Cash was locked in with a Nashville crew pumping out records that didn't do Cash justice, and decided to sign him to his label -- which, coincidentally enough, was named American Records. Rubin knew Cash could make a cover song his own within a few bars, so he began to collect songs from artists like Tom Petty, Soundgarden, and, perhaps most notably, Nine Inch Nails, the better to market Johnny to a younger-skewed, more appreciative audience. The records were put out with a simple, block-lettered "Cash" on the front, usually with a simple black and white photo of Johnny looking pensive (or ready to kick ass. Who can tell?)

Just as he had risen after bottoming out on drugs, Cash was soon beginning a second act. He was hitting the stage of life once again, this time with the fervor of a man half his age combined with the hard-won wisdom of a man twice his age. He resurrected himself, reinvented himself, and re-established himself all at once. He collected and connected to a whole new group of fans, even as he lost some of his old ones.

He remained, of course, 100 percent Cash. After selling an impressive amount of records without so much as a hint of country radio play, Rubin used a classic image of Johnny in an ad that went out to various publications. Sarcastically thanking them for all their "support," it featured a young Cash holding a guitar and flipping off the camera with barely controlled vitriol. It was a marketing stunt, to be sure, but Cash was said to have gotten a kick out of it.

Johnny's last couple of releases dropped a bit in quality from the first two "American Recordings," and some folks began accusing Rubin of using Johnny as a sort of personal jukebox (cashbox?). I was one of them. When I saw Rubin had Johnny covering Nine Inch Nails' song "Hurt," I grimaced. Like Johnny at Folsom Prison, I too said some words you can't put on a record. And then I heard it, and saw how Johnny was able to connect to the young man who wrote it, Trent Reznor, and make the song his own even as he made it even more Trent Reznor's and everybody else's. I played the song, probably cried a little, and then played it again three times in a row. "Everyone I know/goes away/in the end," Johnny sang, and he was right. Damn it, he was right.

No doubt Cash is somewhere right now with his darling June Carter, confounding someone's expectations of him. If he's in the heaven he sang of so convincingly, he ought to be easy to spot -- he'll be the one in black. More than likely, though, he's wherever the common man is, the man that he sang about so many times in his long and illustrious career.

Ladies and gentlemen, he was Johnny Cash.

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