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Remembering Johnny Cash
by David W. Johnson

Can there be a more fitting title for a legendary trouper's final album than The Man Comes Around? Like Elvis before him, the latter-day Johnny Cash went by one name and became an industry. This is the fourth in a series of albums that takes its title from his very successful 1994 release, American Recordings. Though in recent years his health was poor, Cash planned to record a fifth album. The death of his wife and soul mate, June Carter Cash, in May of this year compounded the mortality issue. Yet Johnny Cash was a man for whom performing and recording were as necessary as breathing. We can bet now that the last recording light has dimmed, this introspective icon from the first generation of rock and roll performers will have left behind enough material for several posthumous albums.

Even in the weeks after his wife's death, he performed. I count myself fortunate to have seen his last performance, which took place on Saturday, July 5, 2003, at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Virginia - a rustic performance venue built onto a hillside next to the store (now a museum) that June's uncle, A. P. Carter of the Original Carter Family, ran during his later years. The Fold has become a shrine to traditional music, with the usual fare being old-time music and bluegrass. According to Fold lore, Cash was the only musician allowed to play the venue backed by electric instruments. Said Cash on the night I saw him, "My cousin Janette (Carter) tells me I can plug in because June told her that I was already plugged in when she met me" - a reference to his many years of pill-popping.

Hearing Cash in person was a reminder of how powerful his early material was because of its simplicity and sincerity. Simplicity came in the form of spare instrumentation: just Cash's acoustic guitar backed by a bass and electric lead guitar. Sincerity came in the straightforward lyrics of his earliest hits such as "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "I Walk the Line." Each of these qualities is present in The Man Comes Around, and it seems disrespectful to criticize an aging performer for falling short of his earlier standards - yet he did. Some of Cash's interpretations of an odd collection of material from Nine Inch Nails to Paul Simon to Sting seem like walk-throughs, though he spoke in earlier notes from this series of making each song his own.

Take "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." This lovely Ewan MacColl ballad, made a hit in 1972 by Roberta Flack, requires an intensity of emotion that Cash could not muster. Even if he ever could, his weakened energy in his final year couldn't support the spirit of the song. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" suffers from a similar lack of passion. Songwriter Paul Simon conceived of it as a gospel song. Having heard both Simon and original performer Art Garfunkel sing the song, I feel safe in saying that Johnny Cash was not able to get it off the ground - and it is a song meant to soar. When I heard Elvis Presley sing it in concert in 1971, he nearly lifted the roof off Boston Garden with the force of his vocal delivery. Like Elvis, Cash had strong roots in southern gospel music and indeed recorded albums of gospel songs; but on disc he didn't seem to connect this song with that tradition. His delivery is monotonous.

In contrast to these unsuccessful interpretations of great material are the album's first two songs and a few others, such as Sting's "I Hung My Head." The title song comes from an apocalyptic dream Cash had that he pared down into verses that could fit into song form. With its crisp acoustic guitar and ominous vocal, the song is a convincing warning that judgment day may be upon us sooner than we think. The album's second song, "Hurt," written by Trent Reznor of the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, seemed to fit Cash perfectly in terms of his failing health and collapsing world. His singing was shaky, yet effective for that very reason. Incorporating images of everyone from Jesus on the cross to young Johnny Cash on stage, the video of "Hurt" brought tears to the eyes of some viewers. In it, Cash appears old, frail, and depressed. He may not have been each of these things, but the video captures the essence of what these states must feel like.

Cash's willingness to embrace both song and video is the kind of risk that made him a significant artist. Not only was he a survivor in an industry that burned out and buried most his contemporaries, including Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins; he was a prolific composer, narrator, organizer of diverse concept albums (trains, native Americans, the Holy Land), and relentless traveling troubadour on American and European highways. According to his autobiography, he could look out the window of his tour bus at any point in the United States and identify his location within five miles.

When he appeared at the Carter Fold in July 2003, those days were well behind him. What we saw was a frail old man with wispy white hair who still dressed in black and was able to deliver a half dozen of his older songs with artistry and conviction. Even in the deepest of sorrows at the loss of his life partner, he was able to entertain. He gave us "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Deep River," the Stanley Brothers' "Angel Band" (dedicated to June as it had been at her funeral when sung by Emmylou Harris) and a song from the deep, dusty pages of his songbook, "Understand Your Man," that he said he hadn't performed on stage in 25 years.

On The Man Comes Around, he assembled a much more arbitrary song selection diluted by uneven performances. It sounds as if he wanted to include some tracks, such as "Danny Boy," simply for the pleasure of having recorded them. More consistent material delivered by a singer-songwriter who still had plenty of kick is available on the original American Recordings album, released a decade ago. This set featuring just Cash and his acoustic guitar is a classic. It re-launched his career for the third time and led to a quite different but entertaining follow-up, Unchained, on which the sound became electric with the help of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The third album in the series, Solitary Man, suffers from the same unevenness to be found in the fourth, though it has its highlights. The title track is not one of them.

Having made some critical comments, I need to ask the reader's indulgence: Put this review in the context of one of the most remarkable careers in American popular music. Perhaps because of his very productivity - the result of that same hyperactive energy that dragged him through thousands of pills and self-admitted episodes of violence - Cash's recorded output was erratic right from his first album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, released in 1956. On his Sun Records debut, outstanding songs book-end mediocre and forgettable songs. Later, this became an inevitable byproduct of the substantial number of concept albums Cash recorded. Even Sgt. Pepper and Tommy have weak moments. Yet Cash's legacy is one of originality, risk-taking, frequent disregard for the opinion of reviewers like me, and a gift for pulling previously disconnected material out of the same black hat and - most of the time - making it work.

How significant was Johnny Cash? A book on country-rock argues that his duet with Bob Dylan on "Girl of the North Country" on Dylan's Nashville Skyline album legitimized the genre. Cash made Dylan country, and Dylan made Cash cool. When Cash took his road show into California's Folsom Prison in 1968, he gave new life to the live album as well as his own career. With the American Recordings series - in collaboration with series producer Rick Rubin - he offered us the bittersweet gift of listening to a man grow old, face his own mortality, and sing about how it feels. That Cash has been a successful singer, songwriter, and entertainer is beyond question. These final recordings tell us that he was an artist willing to bare his soul as long as we could bear to listen.

[Copyright 2003 David W. Johnson]

The author wishes to thank editor Sarah Koops Vanderveen of The Mars Hill Review for giving him the assignment that led to the original version of this article.

Comments? E-mail the editor at djohnson@folklinks.com.

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