Listening to my iPod Shuffle recently, I stumbled upon “The Greatest Cowboy Of Them All,” an unreleased Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash collaboration from the Jennings box set Nashville Rebel. It is either the greatest or worst country song of all time. As Cash fans might guess, the cowpoke in question is a scrappy little wrangler out of Nazareth. “I have always had my heroes / I’ve loved a lot of legends / Many men in my mind are riding tall,” Jennings sings. “But my cowboy hero’s hat’s off to a man who rode a donkey / He’s the greatest cowboy of them all.” Then Cash joins his fellow Highwaymen in admonishing listeners to “get ready for that roundup that winds up where old cowboys never die.”
The song made me laugh out loud. In its unintentional way, it is as devastating a parody of cornball country tropes as spoofs like The Onion News Network’s devastating take on country’s hate-hate relationship with New York, Bob Odenkirk’s C.S. Lewis Jr., and Sharpling and Wurster’s two-part evisceration of flag-waving opportunism.
After a solid month of listening to Cash sing about Jesus and cowboys, seeing the two obsessions fused in such a slick, transparent, pandering package struck me as the height of ridiculousness, not to mention a violation of the trembling sincerity that characterizes most of Cash’s singing about faith and redemption.
Cash is a terrific advocate for faith precisely because he almost never stoops to the, “You like cowboys? Great, Jesus is the greatest cowboy ever. You like NASCAR too? Well, Jesus rides the fastest little thing on four wheels in heaven or Earth! Oh, and you’re absolutely crazy about Hannah Montana? Well you’re in luck, cause he’s also an incognito high-school student by day/pop star by night, in addition to being the savior of mankind!” school of pandering.
No, Cash’s Christianity is of the deeply spiritual, non-commercial, almost creepily intimate variety. As Michael Streissguth notes in Johnny Cash: The Biography, every time Cash’s career surged, he used his newfound commercial currency to preach the gospel. After Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash At San Quentin,and his late-’60s television show resuscitated his career, a temporarily clean and sober Cash used his clout and resources to fund, co-write, and narrate a deeply personal, idiosyncratic film about Jesus called Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus. Alas, secular audiences weren’t ready for June Carter Cash as an adorable Mary Magdalene with a Southern-fried accent, and the film slipped in and out of theaters en route to an open-ended run in church basements before youth groups.
I plan to cover Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus for a future My Year Of Flops entry, but it represents only a fraction of Cash’s lifelong love affair with the Greatest Cowboy Of Them All. A much purer, more eloquent and heartbreaking illustration of Cash’s gospel fare can be found in “Greystone Chapel,” the emotional heart of his legendary At Folsom Prison concert album.
In Religulous, Bill Maher takes a brief breather from snidely dismissing all faith, everywhere, to acknowledge that faithlessness is a luxury. If you’re a multi-millionaire with your own television show, and a blowjob from Karrine Steffans is always just a phone call away, it’s easy to dismiss religion as the opiate of the masses, a bunch of superstitious hogwash for the gullible and ignant. But if you’re a soldier, a prisoner, or an addict, belief in a forgiving, all-powerful, all-loving deity begins to look like an essential rather than a luxury.
The son of an angry, abusive father and an adoring, endlessly supportive mother, Johnny Cash knew pain all his life. When Cash was 12, his beloved older brother Jack was nearly cut in two in a table-saw accident, and he lingered on the brink of death for an entire week before finally dying. Jack’s death left a permanent impression on Cash, as did the death of his Tennessee guitarist Luther Perkins, who died in a fire after falling asleep with a cigarette in his mouth in 1968.
In a perfect bit of synchronicity, “Greystone Chapel” was written by Glen Sherley, a lean, gaunt Folsom inmate who didn’t know Cash would be performing it until the visiting icon introduced the song. “Greystone Chapel” is a stirring testament to the transformative power of faith, and the titular institution’s cherished place as “a house of worship in this den of sin” for a convicted armed robber intimately acquainted with his own personal demons.
Cash obviously saw a lot of himself in Sherley, a troubled man who found comfort and inspiration in faith and music. After being introduced to his music, Cash lobbied to get Sherley released from prison. In the deeply sad documentary that accompanies the essential, recently released three-disc At Folsom Prison box set there’s a scene of Cash greeting an ecstatic Sherley upon his release from Folsom.
Spying an opportunity to put his ideas about prison reform and rehabilitation into practice, Cash signed Sherley to his House Of Cash publishing company and hired him as an opening act. Though he wasn’t averse to striking Christ-like poses, Cash always identified most strongly with St. Paul. He even wrote a novel about him titled Man In White. If a ferocious enemy of early Christians could become one of the most important leaders of the early Church, than why couldn’t a hellcat like Sherley reform his ways if given a chance? If the Lord saved Paul, then why couldn’t he save Sherley? Or Cash himself?
Yet Sherley’s heartwarming human-interest story (big-hearted American icon saves humble prisoner) quickly devolved into tragedy. Sherley’s stint as part of Cash’s tour came to an end when Sherley grinningly told a member of Cash’s entourage that he loved him like a brother, but would very much like to murder him and dismember his corpse.
Cash wanted desperately to believe that nobody was beyond rehabilitation, but Sherley drifted steadily into oblivion. He became involved in drugs again as his career disintegrated; in 1978, he shot himself in the head. He was 42, but seemed to have aged decades in the years between his release from Folsom and his suicide.
But there never would have been an At Folsom Prison without “Folsom Prison Blues,” and there never would have been a “Folsom Prison Blues” if a young GI named J.R. Cash hadn’t seen a 1951 drama called Inside the Walls Of Folsom Prison and co-opted the melody and many of the lyrics of a song called “Crescent City Blues.” Given its subject matter, perhaps it’s appropriate that a good deal of creativity larceny was involved in the creation of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
In the mid-’50s, Cash and his Tennessee Two backing band (gum-smacking Marshall Grant on stand-up bass, and glowering, stone-faced electric guitarist Luther Perkins) were making it up as they went along. Early rock ’n’ roll was the original punk rock, a ferocious, revolutionary noise made by testosterone-crazed young men making up in energy, personality, speed, and raw talent what they lacked in polish and musicianship.
Nobody played guitar like Perkins, just as no one sang like Johnny Cash. At the very beginning, they could barely play their instruments, but they were blessed with a divine spark of inspiration. At Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios, Cash emerged from the same primordial musical soup that would give the world Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time, there didn’t seem to be much difference between rock ’n’ roll, blues, R&B, country, and rockabilly. They were incestuous country cousins made by men barely out of their teens, yet on the crest of a cultural and musical revolution. It was all one big musical swamp back at Sun. Cash and his gifted band of musical primitives could follow up gospel numbers and spare country numbers with a raucous, upbeat R&B number like “Get Rhythm,” an upbeat, life-affirming blast of joy that might just be the funkiest number in Cash’s early discography.
Cash’s trio performed infectious ditties like “Katy Too,” a toe-tapper filled with backhanded compliments and peppy passive-aggression about a Romeo with a wandering eye and the woman who will always be second or third in his heart. But while Cash and The Two were whizzes at cranking out two- to two-and-a-half-minute pop songs, there was a depth, soulfulness, and intensity that set their music apart.
Take, for example, “I Walk The Line.” In a pop world that catered shamelessly to the obsessions of Elvis-besotted teenyboppers, “I Walk The Line” offers an unmistakably adult conception of love and romance rooted in fidelity, self-discipline, and a stoic sense of duty and honor.
Not even the great Johnny Cash was averse to the siren song of teenybopper dollars. The man toured extensively with labelmates Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, so he knew firsthand the rewards of appealing to the tastes and hormones of 13-year-old girls. Out of this fetid pool of commercial calculation came “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen.”
It’s the antithesis of the rumbling, primal Tennessee Two sound, a hilariously overproduced wad of bubblegum with matching sets of syrupy, cornball backing vocals, one male and one female. It’s easy to imagine Cash, or Troy fucking Donahue, for that matter, singing the song in a white tuxedo with a Colgate smile on his face while backup singers do silly little dances behind him.
Legendary songwriter-producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who famously discovered Jerry Lee Lewis while boss Sam Phillips was away on vacation, penned the song using the flimsiest of teen archetypes (movie stars, boy next door) and the simplest of rhymes. It tells the story of the titular teen, “The prettiest girl around / golden hair and eyes of blue / how those eyes could flash at you.” The Teenage Queen’s looks drive her classmates into a hormonal frenzy, but she only has eyes for “the boy next door / who worked at the candy store.”
The Teenage Queen’s beauty and brains lead to Hollywood superstardom, but she misses her hometown and “the boy next door who worked at the candy store,” so she throws it all away to be with him. The glitz and glamour of the big city are shunned, and small-town values and true love are affirmed. The song is like a moralistic issue of Archie And Friends, only less substantial. “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen” is one of the stupidest, most disposable songs Cash ever recorded. It was also, not surprisingly, one of his biggest hits.
Cash’s hit-making prowess attracted the attention of Columbia, who scooped up Cash as his behavior grew wilder and wilder. As his pill addiction raged out of control, his line-walking abilities wavered, as evidenced by his next hit single, “Ring Of Fire.” June Carter Cash wrote the song about the agony and the ecstasy of her extramarital fling with her husband-to-be. In Cash’s world, even new love is a source of torment and hellfire-like damnation.
As immortalized in Walk The Line, Carter Cash was the yin to Cash’s yang, the sunshine to his eternal darkness, his foil and duet partner and soulmate and better half. In one of my favorite moments in At Folsom Prison, Cash—whose voice and body language loosened up noticeably in Carter’s presence—asks his wife to perform a poem or one of her “funnies.” Carter Cash kept Cash from killing himself with pills and could perform a “funny” on demand. What more can any man ask for?
In the early ’60s, Cash became infatuated with the folk-music revival and its enigmatic, reluctant leader, Bob Dylan. A mutual-admiration society developed between Dylan and Cash. To a man who grew up Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota, J.R. Cash oozed authenticity. He was a true son of the South who’d picked cotton in his youth and functioned as a sort of a one-man Harry Smith anthology of indigenous American music.
A smitten Cash covered Dylan songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe,” wrote “Wanted Man” with him, and performed at folk hot spots in New York and the Newport Folk Festival. When Cash landed his own variety show following the success of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, the then-TV-shy Dylan—decades from his legendary collaboration with Victoria’s Secret—was his first guest. Though Cash’s genre of choice was country, he always had a lot of folk in him, with his deep love of spirituals, traditional songs, American folklore, trains, murder ballads, and protest songs.
On “What Is Truth,” Cash aligns himself with the idealism and energy of the emerging counterculture, with their jazz cigarettes and crazy acid rock and disdain for personal hygiene. In “Man In Black,” he aligns himself with every suffering soul in the universe in a way that skirts self-parody. It’s essentially a straight-faced version of Dewey Cox’s “Dear Mr. President,” but Cash is able to pull it off. Only Cash could transform an aversion to wearing summer colors into an iconic political and philosophical statement.
At the height of his pill addiction, Cash missed a full 50 percent of his engagements. Even Ol’ Dirty Bastard had a better track record for showing up for gigs. Cash was falling apart in public, missing shows, burning down forests (seriously, at one point in the mid-’60s, Cash started a forest fire) and showing up for TV appearances stoned out of his gourd. On the documentary included in the At Folsom Prison box set, there’s a horrifying clip of a clearly jittery, manic, out-of-it Cash on Pete Seeger’s television show, scratching himself, twitching uncontrollably, and generally looking like a candidate for A&E’s Intervention.
Cash still managed the occasional hit, like 1967’s “Jackson,” a fire-breathing duet with June Carter Cash that fulfills the promise inherent in one of the greatest opening lines in music history: “We got married in a fever.” Cash was doing everything in a fever those days, but his headfirst lunge toward self-destruction gave way to a renewed commitment to sobriety, Christianity, and his music.
Cash sought out a comeback in the likeliest and unlikeliest of places: a free show for rapists, murderers, and guys who pull the tags off mattresses in showrooms just for kicks. Prisons, even abandoned prisons, have a curious karmic energy. I remember being deeply depressed and freaked out when I visited Alcatraz for the first time. Setting foot in that barren hellhole/tourist trap, my sense memory immediately traveled to the darkest corridors of my past. It was as if every last condemned man had left a psychic imprint that lingered on for decades after they’d left.
Cash feeds off the dark and righteous energy of the prisoners at Folsom. Playing in front of the wretched of the Earth, Cash is at his best and most achingly human. He’s filled with the nervous energy of a man fighting a hellacious battle to stay clean in the face of long odds. He bursts into nervous laughter at the least appropriate times, puncturing the gothic gloom of “The Long Black Veil” with an extended giggle-fit. But on those fateful nights, Cash’s imperfections led to perfection. June Carter Cash follows up a raucous “Jackson” by forgetting the words to “I Got A Woman” in the most adorable possible fashion. There are few things in this world more endearing than the Cashes fucking up.
In his songs and in his sly, sneaky, subversive stage banter, Cash puts himself in the place of the prisoners. He’s a guitar-slinging David taking on the Goliaths of corrupt authority. Folks have criticized Cash for pandering to the prisoners with inmate-friendly songs of rebellion, criminality, and murder but I think Cash deserves credit for not playing even more prisontastic songs like “Fuck You, Jailer,” “Gonna Make Me A Shiv,” and “Cellmate Sure Looks Purdy (In The Pale Moonlight).”
Cash could identify with his audience all he liked, but at the end of the show, he got to leave prison, while the prisoners returned to their cells. Yet “Cocaine Blues” has a manic, rampaging darkness that still feels dangerous and raw more than four decades later. Like NWH’s “A Gangsta’s Life Ain’t Fun,” from Fear Of A Black Hat, “Cocaine Blues” offers the visceral excitement of living outside the law before the obligatory hypocritical, transparent moral. Cash’s admonishment to “lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be” doesn’t ring any truer than NWH’s assertion that a gangsta’s life ain’t fun.
Like Elvis’ simpatico ’68 comeback special, At Folsom Prison reminded audiences why they fell in love with a seminal artist in the first place, by stripping him down to his essence. But where Presley’s comeback special was pure showbiz, Folsom reaffirmed Cash’s outlaw roots. The setting and audience loaned a pummeling intensity to prison songs like “25 Minutes To Go” while ratcheting up their gallows humor. One can only imagine how exciting and cathartic it must have been for the average prisoner to listen to Cash sing about laughing in a sheriff’s face and spitting in his eye. Cash’s life and music were a family affair. Folsom was no exception. After Cash introduces his hard-ass son-of-a-bitch father Ray in Folsom, you can faintly hear the elder Cash grumble, “I still think the wrong son died.”
At Folsom Prison resuscitated Cash’s career, but it was outsold by 1969’s At San Quentin. Releasing another live prison album just a year after Folsom must have looked opportunistic, but while obviously not as fresh or exciting as Folsom, San Quentin is impressive in its own right, especially its extended gospel finale.
Though his film career never took off, Cash became an unlikely television star when he signed on to host his very own variety show in 1969. According to Kris Kristofferson’s hilariously hyperbolic opening narration of the first disc of the Best Of The Johnny Cash Show two-DVD set, the show was pretty much all that kept the United States from exploding into civil war in the late ’60s.
Kristofferson’s words suggest that if Cash hadn’t brought the generations together, Johnny Acid Trip and his old man Crusty McReactionary would have murdered each other in cold blood instead of sitting down in front of the TV to watch Johnny Cash sit and pick with Bob Dylan and The Statler Brothers, Joni Mitchell and Mother Maybelle Carter.
Judging from the excerpts included on the disc (it frustratingly contains greatest hits rather than full episodes) Cash was never a particularly natural television performer. When singing and stiffly reciting copy, he comes off like a cross between a seasoned entertainer and a cornered wild animal. It didn’t help that the show’s costumers routinely dressed him like a 19th-century riverboat gambler.
Yet The Johnny Cash Show was riveting television all the same. Where else were you going to see the Man In Black rap with college kids about drugs before introducing Neil Young performing “The Needle And The Damage Done”? Or watch Cash try to conjure up the lonesome spirit of Jimmie Rodgers alongside Louis Armstrong? Or witness the glorious sight of Cash flipping the bird to censors and his network bosses by keeping a reference to desperately longing to get stoned in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” arguably the greatest hangover song ever written?
The Johnny Cash Show ended in 1971. Cash managed to stay relatively clean and largely sober until 1976, but as the years went on and disappointments mounted, he started abusing pills again. His music suffered. Cash wrote less and less and became increasingly dependent on younger songwriters like Billy Joe Shaver. His albums suffered from overproduction and poor song choices. Yet he was still able to turn out the occasional masterpiece, like his transcendent cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman.”
“Highway Patrolman” is a movie in song form, a bittersweet narrative about the conflict between family and duty whose roots stretch back as far as the story of Cain and Abel. It’s a song of stark, spare beauty and raw power. It’s a shame Cash never recorded an entire album of Springsteen covers.
Yet if the country world had tossed Cash aside, his legend and mystique remained. When U2 decided to get all crazy and postmodern on Zooropa,they perversely hooked in Cash, that timeless icon of authenticity, to lend his Old Testament baritone to “The Wanderer,” a lonely Christian ramble through a futuristic dystopia where the Old West and 1984 meet in a synth-driven ghost town.
The American Recordings series instigated yet another Cash comeback, but not even death can keep people from fucking with his legacy. This year saw the release of Johnny Cash Remixed, a Snoop Dogg-executive produced abomination that puts Cash’s croon at the mercy of various knob-twirlers and laptop composers.
I just think it’s a shame that Cash never lived to see his life goal’s of putting out a song that sounds like a Stereo MCs outtake, a goal finally fulfilled by Sonny J’s “I’m loving the ’90s” remix of “Country Boy.” That defilement pales in comparison to what Snoop Dogg and his QDT production team do to “I Walk The Line.” Imagine Snoop Dogg and his producers getting high and laying down a generic G-funk groove while Johnny Cash warbles on a tinny transistor radio in the background. Throw in a half-assed Snoop Dogg verse, and you have a pretty good sense of what Snoop did to Cash’s classic. These tracks reduce Cash to just another element in a busy sonic mix, but nobody puts Johnny in the corner.
Well, friends, I’m afraid that concludes the Johnny Cash portion of this project. I very easily could have devoted two entire months to Cash, but I’m afraid I’ve got to be rambling on down the road.
Up Next: Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson’s Genre-Hopping Endeavors
Gram Parsons’ Cosmic Musical Americana
Tom T. Hall