Johnny Cash: September when it came

 NZ Listener

Johnny Cash was a giant and his recent death casts a long black shadow over the world of music. Here are just a dozen of the many things we can thank him for.

1.    The Sun sound

Nashville was already beginning to turn out slick countrypolitan hits with strings and choirs when Sam Phillips, fresh from his discovery of Elvis, captured a sound in Memphis that was the opposite of Nashville. Plain, percussive and centred on Johnny’s dark drawl, Sun sides like “I Walk the Line”, “Big River” and “Get Rhythm” were more primal and raw than any country records heard before. Remarkably they got airplay, and rural America found its rebel voice.

2.    Folsom Prison Blues

Hearing Johnny’s second single, it is hard to believe the song is a work of fiction. Nothing could be more vivid than the verse in which the prisoner pictures the train that is speeding past his cell, imagines the rich folks in the dining car, even sees their cigars and coffee-cups. “But those people keep a-movin’/And that’s what tortures me”. No wonder Johnny was welcomed in the very prisons he fantasised about. On the live At San Quentin album, hear him sing this song and its freshly written sequel ‘San Quentin’; the atmosphere is volcanic. As Cash admitted years later, he knew that if he had said ‘Break!’ the audience would have torn the prison apart.

3.    The White Man’s Blues

No, he didn’t invent them. Before Johnny there was Jimmie Rogers’ blue-yodel, and Hank Williams who learned his blues from a black street musician. But the Cash bass-baritone was a deeper, darker blue, nurtured by the same Arkansas soil that raised black bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson.

4.    Poets of doom

Even within his narrow vocal range he gave little thought to the notes, as if mere melody was too trivial for his purposes. His style was more sermon than song, as though an Old Testament prophet had stepped into a saloon, and it pointed the way for other poets of doom, from Leonard Cohen to Jim Morrison.

5.    Babies growing up to be outlaws

He never spent time in jail for anything worse than picking daisies from a Nashville lawn, but his whole persona – from the death ballads to the drug problems – became the blueprint for generations of outlaws to come. Of course Keith Richards worshipped him.

6.    Men in Black

Johnny pioneered a wardrobe that crossed the garb of a gunslinger with that of a funeral director and a Pentecostal preacher. Every rock or country performer since that has dared to dress top to toe in black implicitly shares his obsession with sin, mortality and redemption. Ask Nick Cave or Marty Stuart.

7.    Country’s conscience

Though country music has frequently flown the flag for conservative redneck America, Johnny went against the grain with his affinity for liberal and humanitarian causes. In the early 60s he devoted whole albums to the plight of Native Americans and went on to lend his weight to campaigns against US foreign policy and the death penalty.

8.    Trashed hotel rooms

Years before the rampages of Keith Moon or John Bonham, Johnny blazed his own trail of destruction through the hotel chains of America. Once he painted an entire motel room black, including windows and bedspreads. At another, irritated with the furnishings, he hired a power saw and cut the legs off every table, chair, bed and bureau. Most creative of all was the time he checked out leaving his room occupied by a donkey.

9.    The Johnny Cash Show

In the late 60s his show was a rare instance of real music on television. Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and the Who all guested. And by some miracle it was screened in New Zealand.

10.    Rosanne Cash

Johnny’s eldest daughter inherited his brooding intelligence, though she was a lot prettier. Her recent album Rules Of Travel includes a cameo from Johnny on “September When It Comes”, a shockingly prescient song she wrote trying to imagine life without him. He died the following September.

11.    The single-string twang

Luther Perkins was one half of Cash’s band, the Tennessee Two and a genius of minimalism. When he died in 69 the challenge for Johnny was to find a musician with enough natural limitations to recreate Perkins’s signature single-string twang.

12.    American Recordings

The post-Sun years were patchy, ranging from the great (his prison albums, themed collections on trains and Indians) to the godawful (duets with June Carter, Christmas albums). But in the twilight of his career he made four albums for the American label with rap/metal producer Rick Rubin that in their best moments were the equal of his Sun classics. American Recordings (1994) is the best overall, with the chilling “Delia’s Gone”, harrowing “Beast In Me” and stoic “Drive On”. But Unchained, Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around aren’t too far behind, with peerless interpretations of everything from Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” to “Streets Of Laredo”. 

Tags: countryjohnny cashkeith richardsrosanne cash

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