In celebration of what would have been Johnny Cash’s 85th birthday this Sunday (spoiler: He died in 2003), I first considered writing a steamy, deeply confessional and semi-scandalous love letter to the Man in Black. But I soon realized such a document might quickly devolve into gratuitous eroticism. I then began penning a jeremiad against the Beatles and the coastal urban elite, but my mom beseeched me to write something that “didn’t insult anyone” (she also asked to never be quoted in anything I ever write). So, instead, I have endeavored here to pronounce and prove Johnny Cash as the greatest musician to ever live, a task made ever easier by my claim’s utter indisputability.
Nonetheless, I recognize that this concrete fact is not universally recognized. Take, for example, Rolling Stone’s rock-centric enumeration of the supposed “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Cash comes in at an inexplicably low #31, while the Beatles take top prize. If I had to formulate my own list, it would look like this:
1. Johnny Cash
2. Johnny Cash
3. Johnny Cash
100. “Poker Face”-era Lady Gaga
Now that you are breathless with indignation, allow me to proceed to the heart of my increasingly compelling argument. Johnny Cash singularly affected and transformed his genre — one can only consider country music before Cash, and country music after Cash. There can be no country music as we understand it today without that tremulous bass-baritone of the Man in Black. And he revolutionized other genres, too, so please just stop arguing with me.
Cash found a country music characterized by the cute banjo twang of Ernest Tubb. He left us with a dynamic art form, one both pulsing with tales of murder and marginalization and swooning with ballads of soft romance and strident patriotism. He united the grim yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers with the sunny chimes of the Carter Family. In short, he allowed country music to accommodate the drugstore cowboy croon of George Strait and the outlaw blues of Waylon Jennings, all while deepening the form’s intellectual heft to the point it could provide occasional respite for Bob Dylan.
“How did he accomplish this?” you may ask incredulously. Cash first provoked the country music establishment with a single verse from “Folsom Prison Blues:” “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” While admittedly vaguely plagiarized, Cash’s command of the lyrics presented country music with its greatest rebel, an enfant terrible who eventually became the philosopher-king of Nashville. Cash was not a mere provocateur; he introduced to a staid Nashville academy a populist concern that extended to Native Americans, the poor and prisoners. He especially empathized with the latter, though never to the point of patronization, instead understanding their retrospective guilt and grappling with sin through his own struggles (“I’m the biggest sinner of them all,” he once claimed). This relationship produced the greatest live album of all time, “At Folsom Prison.” At a time when the Beatles’ music was too “complex” to be played live, Cash was taunting guards in concert at a maximum-security prison.
Despite his predilection for being an “outsider,” Cash could also hew to the country establishment. His oeuvre shows an outspoken nationalism, as in “Ragged Old Flag.” While undoubtedly having a soft spot for America, he was nonetheless quick to point out the nation’s flaws. Richard Nixon was his favorite president, but when he visited the White House in 1972 to discuss prison reform, he shocked the commander in chief by singing “What is Truth?”, an embrace of youthful striving and a rejection of conservative regressivism. The man’s testicular fortitude cannot be overstated. All the while, he was able to produce lilting ballads of romantic love, such as the humming, chugging whisper of “I Walk the Line.” He was at once a patriot, a badass and a romantic. Are these not the three pillars which uphold country music today? Indeed, Cash expanded country music into a mode that could be both transgressive and saccharine, both David Allan Coe and Shania Twain — a mode that could contain the contradictions he himself contained.
But Cash’s influence extends beyond country. His oeuvre truly spanned genres, hence his unprecedented induction into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame. The boom-chicka-boom sound of his backing band, The Tennessee Three, modernized country’s sound by bridging honky-tonk with the driving rhythms of rock. He recorded innumerable gospel songs and even created a gospel double album to accompany his passion project, “Gospel Road,” a film about the life of Jesus (it’s on Netflix so you have no excuse for not watching). And Cash’s thematic concerns continue to reverberate. Besides the outlaw subgenre of country that he almost singlehandedly founded, his frequent exploration of violence, incarceration and drug use, as exemplified by the feverish “Cocaine Blues,” has led some, including Snoop Dogg, to point to his work as a harbinger of gangsta rap.
So, yes, I accept your apology, dear reader. Please, though, do not dwell in self-pity. Instead, this Sunday, wear black, listen to the music of Johnny Cash, and consider yourself converted. Johnny once humbly insisted, “I’m just a singer of songs.” But he was, and is, so much more.
Contact Josh Baize at email@example.com .