Happy belated birthday, Johnny Cash
My friend Alli introduced me to Johnny Cash at some point during my New York City years. She would load the jukebox at some terrible, smoky East Village bar (back when it was okay to smoke inside) with classic Cash and Tom Waits, and a few other choice selections. By the time I was a full-fledged Cash fan, he was dead and gone.
Except for a brief period of Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn in high school, country music had been a now-way and no-thanks zone for me. But then, based on the reliable taste of a good friend, I started with “Ring of Fire,” of course, and worked my way through all the mainstream standards. It took me a few years to delve into Live at Folsom Prison. I might not have gone much farther – why dig deeper than Folsom Prison, considering – if it weren’t for the swath of varied publicists sending me collections Johnny was releasing from beyond the grave. One opened the door on his gospel songs. Another was live from San Quentin. Another still saw him covering Nine Inch Nails (classic!) and so on. For months, nay years, rarities collections and Cash b-sides have been pouring into my inbox. The latest sees Cash collaborating with Snoop Dogg. I thought it was kind of a joke for a while. The guy has been more prolific from the grave than he was in life.
Then I came upon a recording of him singing “Goodnight Irene.” A folk song. Okay, I thought, I can fall in love with that. The story of “Goodnight Irene” is so hilarious and fascinating that it seemed a perfect one for Johnny to pick up and run with. After all, it (and John Lomax) helped get Leadbelly freed from prison once upon a time. Johnny’s version of “Goodnight Irene” was suddenly a gateway. What one’s therapist might call an “Aha!” moment. There comes a time for any music fan when one realizes that all music shares a common history, that the genre-fication of music is not something with which the musicians themselves have had anything to do. Since then, I’ve made a point of finding all the Cash I can. Through Johnny, I’ve uncovered an enormous array of artists and styles.
Another friend, who also happens to be my editor at Sound magazine, has this twisted game he likes to play. Imagine in one hand, I have a baby Johnny Cash. In the other hand, I have a baby Bob Dylan. You have to kill one but, when you do, you also kill every artist and thing their work has ever influenced. Which one would you kill. (You can play this game with anyone – think of Jimi in one hand and Chuck Berry in the other…this game can – and does – go on forever.) The Johnny or Bob question always stumps me, but I tend to come back to saving Johnny for the reason I mentioned above.
Thursday, he would have turned 76. I don’t think he ever planned to make it as long as he did in this world, so it’s hard to really truly mourn the man. But it’s a good enough reason to spend the weekend with my entire Cash collection on random play…and to share this video with you folks:
Happy birthday, Johnny Cash!