The Man in Black
PITTSBURGH — I have a little secret to confess - there was a time in my life when you couldn't have paid me to listen to Johnny Cash.
I bet I'm not the only pop-music writer who could make that admission.
Once the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other contemporary folkies and rock 'n' rollers penetrated my then-young consciousness, artists like Mr. Cash became completely inappropriate. That was country music, the sound of hicks and truckers, appreciated by people who talked with Suth'un accents and came from pockets of America that I'd never been to - and had no desire to visit.
Oh, how naive and narrow-minded we can be.
I'm listening now - as I've done often in the past 10 or 15 years (his '60s hits "A Boy Named Sue" and "Jackson" notwithstanding). And I love Nashville and Memphis, where Cash's career started and he became one of the "Million Dollar Quartet" - with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Right there in Sam Phillips's Sun Studio, they helped give birth to rock 'n' roll - and the careers of Dylan, the Beatles, and countless others.
I've even considered moving to Nashville. It's still the country-music capital of the world, but now encompasses many genres - just like Cash. The Man in Black's vast output now falls into a category called Americana - a melange of country, blues, folk, rock, pop, and even a little punk. His audience had already begun expanding before Americana had a name, when he started recording with the likes of Irish rockers U2 and covering tunes by other rock acts on four albums produced by Rick Rubin. Mr. Rubin, it should be noted, had until then been known for his work with heavy metal and rap artists. Cash's latest success, in fact, came from his version of "Hurt," a song about addiction, by almost-metal act Nine Inch Nails.
The emotion he wrenched out of each word came from experience. Cash's life was like a classic "VH1: Behind the Music" segment: The son of sharecroppers teaches himself guitar, has some hits, discovers drugs, and is led back to the straight and narrow, and to God, by the woman who becomes his second wife. He and June Carter Cash, country's royal couple, had been married 35 years when she passed away in May.
"Hurt" got seven MTV Video Music Award nominations, including Best Video of the Year - an achievement even more shocking because it meant MTV played a video by a senior-citizen country-music icon. Country music icon. On MTV. With no piercings, tattoos, outrageous outfits, bizarre hairdos, nearly naked women, or electric guitars in sight. Nothing but the man; his impassioned, chillingly dramatic baritone; and an ingenius video in which images of the young and old Johnny merge to form a moving tableau of his life.
But Cash truly seemed timeless. And he didn't care if the songs he sang were politically correct, as long as they were heartfelt. Sure, he recorded schmaltzy patriotic tunes, but he also explored subjects as gritty as any rapper's, and he sang them in front of prison felons - along with the gospel tunes he loved. With Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, known collectively as the Highwaymen, he also helped introduce "outlaw" - as in antiestablishment - country.
Cash's integrity is as revered as his talent. I've never heard anyone say anything disrespectful about him. Though his signature song is "I Walk the Line," he didn't, and earned more admiration because of it. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were the only artists inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame. Others, too, share that distinction.]
When Justin Timberlake beat Cash for MTV's Best Male Video Award last month, the post-teen pop idol went to the podium and insisted, "This is a travesty! I demand a recount!" The Tennessee native added, "My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash ... and I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight."
It was the right thing to do, the absolutely right thing to say. Cash had hoped to be there in person, but via TV, he heard even rappers acknowledge his influence.
Following Cash's death Friday, his former son-in-law, the singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, said, "The citizens of the world have lost one of their most enduring guiding lights. As a musical hero to millions, a trailblazing artist, humanitarian, spiritual leader, social commentator and most importantly, patriarch to one of the most varied and colorful extended families imaginable, Johnny Cash will, like Will Rogers, stand forever as a symbol of intelligence, creativity, compassion, and common sense. I'm thinking Mt. Rushmore."
But Johnny Cash really deserves a mountain of his own.
• Lynne Margolis is an entertainment writer and frequent contributor to the Monitor.