Today was a sunny day in Seattle, rare and welcome this time of the year, so I put the top down on the Mustang, plugged the iPod in, and put it on Johnny Cash, the complete Sun Sessions.
My mom was a Johnny Cash fan. She had three of his albums Greatest Hits vol. 1, Greatest Hits vol. 2 and Ring of Fire. I loved those albums. The one string, hear-every-note guitar of Luther Perkins, Johnny strumming on rhythm anchoring the Memphis production like deeply set stone, and that voice. Johnny had a voice, a deep baritone that just sounded like the truth. If God talked, I think he'd sound like Cash: flat, lanky, dry and honest. I remember watching the Johnny Cash Show (check out the DVD Best of collection, truly timeless, despite the late 60s clothes), even though I didn't know who a lot of the guests were, or even that there were too many 'hippies' on the show (mom's opinion). I didn’t care, I just wanted to hear Johnny. Cash was in his long black velvet jacket phase; longer and looser pompadour, high collar, with June at his side most times, she smiling and keeping the beat with a sway and a bounce. I loved the growl she'd get in her voice; "grrrrrrroooo on down to Jackson..." And 'Jackson" sounding she was spitting it out. I'd sit and listen to those records for hours, reading and rereading the liner notes and looking at the other albums pictured on the sleeve, wondering if those were as good as the ones mom had.
They were. Songs of the Soil, Orange Blossom Special, Ride this Train, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, and the angry, deeply sad, and yes deeply bitter Bitter Tears.
I have them all now. It took me a few years, but I have them, from 'Now There Was a Song!' Johnny's tribute to the music of the earlier generation, to 'Bitter Tears', Johnny taking on America's treatment of its Native people (go listen to his version of Pete LaFarge's 'Ballad of Ira Hayes', I'll wait here), to Ballads of the True West, to his duets with Bob Dylan, I wanted it all. Even the fallow lazy 70s albums when Johnny seemed to be putting out something to keep a musical hand in. Needed those too. Even his mis-steps are interesting for their awkward earnestness (try watching the sincere but misguided 'The Gospel Road' sometime, it's on NetFlix) and for that voice, that voice that spoke and sang the truth. When he let it.
Cash was not perfect, he would tell you so himself. His list of sins against friend and family was long and painful, real and imagined and he filled albums and two autobiographies with them. The hurt deepened and rasped his voice. Listen to the American Recordings of his last few years. This is Johnny emptying his darkness onto tape for us to listen to after he was gone. But in that dark, that hurt, there is joy in it. In the remembered songs of the gospel singer he wanted to be (and really always was) there is joy. He believed with his heart he would be with his loved ones soon, but he was going to sing until that day. For us... and for him.
I Guess Things Happen That Way
Listening to Cash today brought back again how much I miss hearing his voice, listening to his interviews and waiting for his next album. I know he's been gone since 2003, but I try to ignore that fact. As long as I can get more of his music I haven't heard, he's still alive. Now, I have almost everything he's put out, the last 'American Recordings' album has been released, Out Among the Stars the lost 80s album is found, finished and released and I see the end in sight. Johnny is gone and right now, there's no one to replace him. It was rude of him to leave us here alone, but this is the man who flipped off the entire country music industry for leaving him for dead. What could we expect?
A couple years back my mother thought she didn't have long to live, and started asking her kids what we wanted from her stuff. I asked for two things: her autographed picture of Jim Reeves, and her old records. All those Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Roger Miller and Nat King Cole albums would be mine when she passed. I told her I could wait, of course.
I'm going now to play the album Ring of Fire: Johnny Cash's Greatest Hits on my iPod (missing the liner notes, but I've memorized those), think of those days on the carpet in front of the huge stereo cabinet, the LP cover propped up against the speaker, and Johnny telling me about that fire that burns, burns, burns.