Johnny Cash and the Power of Self & Myth
Johnny Cash is known as “Our Founder” at Dirty Roots Radio. I give him that distinction because he was probably the gateway that led to what has become my musical taste today. It’s an honor intended to recognize his fearlessness in his music, in championing causes he believed in, and in living boldly according to his own internal compass. Here are some thoughts I threw down on February 26th – what would have been his 81st birthday.
I’ve been known among my friends and fans of my radio show as a serious Johnny Cash fan for a long, long time. I’ve always said that no human who wasn’t a close friend or family member, has ever meant so much to me personally.
Growing up I suppose I’d heard the name “Johnny Cash” bandied about casually. And I figure I must have heard some of his music here and there. I do remember a time in high school that an adult used the term “A Boy Named Sue” around me and I had no idea what he meant. He said it was a Johnny Cash song. The song didn’t ring a bell, but at least the name did.
Not long after that I remember watching MTV – a pretty regular occurrence for me at the time. They played a video for a new song by Johnny Cash – this name I’d heard, but didn’t really know anything about. He was old. How odd that they’d play such an artist on MTV (then still in its actual “music” days…but just barely). The video starred then-super-hot supermodel Kate Moss. And the song and video were all about this haggard looking old man brutally killing this young woman. What the hell was going on here?
I was intrigued.
It was fortuitous that I saw that video because I learned a short time later that it had been banned from MTV for its violent content (which seems positively puritanical all these years later) and had only been shown on-air that one time.
Later that same year I got a job working as a DJ on our local country music radio station. I didn’t know anything about or like anything about mainstream country music – but I would later learn how much I loved classic country music. The station featured a “country classic” once per hour and on my first night on the job the song that came up in the rotation during my first hour was “Folsom Prison Blues” – the live track that would become my all-time favorite song from then on. I remember asking the DJ who was training me if he knew about Johnny Cash’s “new” material.
I quickly purchased both Cash’s “American Recordings” album and a greatest hits compilation consisting of his years on Columbia Records. Over time, I dug deeper and deeper into all things Johnny Cash. I fell in love with the Columbia material, with the Sun Records material, and, especially at that time, with the latter-day American Recordings material. I also learned as much as I could about Cash’s personal life. He became a great inspiration to me, as a young person working out my own faith and struggles with it. I admired how Cash had boldly trudged his way through the darkness and later walked in the light on his own terms.
The great prophet Kris Kristofferson has a line in his song “Wild American” that says “heroes happen when you need them.”
Looking back at that point in my life, I needed a hero and Johnny Cash fit the bill.
As time went on, the novelty of some of the American Recordings albums wore off and – there’s no phrase I can use here that won’t sound arrogant – but I began to “outgrow” Johnny Cash. My “fanhood” began to change. Even so, I continued to learn everything I could about this artist I loved, and I began to read the biographies that were published after his death (there were several of them, published in rapid succession following his passing). Many of them focused extra intently on his failings as a man. While the conventional story of Johnny Cash has him putting away drugs when it was time to do so and living happily ever after with June Carter, these new books were telling me that wasn’t true; womanizing continued to be an issue for Cash late into his life. It’s well known now, too, that, like most addicts, Cash had many struggles with relapsing into drug and alcohol abuse.
I became upset with these new biographies – not because they were wrecking a “picture perfect” image of Cash, but because I felt they simply dug too deep. It simply wasn’t necessary.
Around this point I began to give a lot of thought to myth. Cash is perhaps the perfect example of the importance of myth. I’m not simply speaking about “marketing” here. The latter-day American Recordings-era publicity casting him as a scary haggard old man who’d lived a dark life of a criminal was nothing more than a vehicle to sell records to curious kids. Cash himself said, shortly before his death, that he felt bad about how he’d let them cast him in such a dark light.
But the point is that the efforts to paint that picture of Cash – the world weary old criminal who held onto redemption by a thread – was no more a myth than the one of his miraculous drug rehabilitation or the one of his fairytale romance with June. They were all myths. Not fakery, mind you, but variations and over-simplifications of the many shades of a deeply complex man.
The amazing thing about Johnny Cash is that all of those myths FIT. There was some level of truth in all of them. Who cares how many of them were true? That wasn’t exactly what it was about. There was just enough truth to each of them that they ALL were believable.
One example… One of my favorite stories about Cash involves a friend of his – I don’t recall who – visiting him at home. Cash, unprovoked and without warning, suddenly throws a Native American tomahawk at the head of his guest who ducked just in time. The guest/victim allegedly raised his head and found the tomahawk embedded in the wall where his cranium had just been.
Is that story true? Probably not. But who cares?!?! The bottom line is that Johnny Cash WAS wild enough that the tale is believable.
Johnny Cash had the unique skill of fully living and embodying his successes as well as his failures. He boldly carried them through life and didn’t shy away from sharing them or talking about them.
THAT is the Johnny Cash that occupies my thoughts and interests these days. The Johnny Cash who simply was what he was; living his life, carrying those errors and regrets and celebrating his accomplishments, interests, and loves.
In doing so, I believe he became everything everyone NEEDED him to be.
To that young man conflicted about his faith and where he’d been, he was a hero.
To a rockabilly cat, Cash was one of the original Sun wildmen.
For the romantic, Cash was part of one of the greatest love stories of our time.
For the convict, the Native American, the downtrodden, Cash was a champion of the underdog.
For the rebel, Cash was a wild-eyed madman, kicking out the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, twitching from the amphetamines, potentially ready to blow at any second.
To the conservative, he was a proud patriotic American.
To a progressive, Cash was the Man In Black – who wore dark clothes and led the way “Til things are brighter”.
To the old, he was a familiar face from a bygone time.
To the young, he was an intriguing old man, boldly daring death.
To the faithful, he was an example of redemption.
He was a sinner and a saint.
He was a convict (except, totally not really at all).
To some, he was just one of those things. I believe the ultimate beauty of it is that he was some combination of ALL of those things.
He was wild and untamed. Anyone that committed to truly being themselves has to be.
As Kristofferson said, “He was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen walkin’ around loose.”
He was a legend.
Johnny Cash simply WAS. He was himself, even if only those closest to him knew who that truly was, in all of his complicated humanness.
The rest of those things…the things he supposedly was….WE put all those things on him. He just had good sense enough to stand back and let us do it; to let us make him what we needed him to be.
While I don’t consider Cash my personal hero anymore, he was an important part of my personal development. My “relationship with him” has taught me a great deal about myth and legend and I still love his music as much as I always have.
Perhaps his greatest testimony – in my case at least – is that after all this time (only 20 years in my case, obviously a lot more in many others’), Johnny Cash continues to provide new ways to look at him and think about him, new lessons to uncover.
(Original artwork by Noel Harnetiax, commissioned by Dirty Roots Radio.)
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a “Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show” featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk.
Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) at www.wgrn.net.