Artist Spotlight: Johnny Cash

photo from johnnycash.com

photo from johnnycash.com

I found that, without fail, most people that say they hate country music do have exceptions to the rule. And one of the most common artists in the, “I don’t like country music but…,” crowd is Johnny Cash. Many a time have I been in a bus full of people who “don’t like country” that can belt out the entirety of “Ring of Fire.”
This is normally where I’d go into the discography, rattling off each album. However, seeing as the man has 67 releases, that’s a lot for an artist. And even if I were to remove the greatest hits-type compilations and Christmas albums it would still be more than 60. And that doesn’t even include singles.
Johnny Cash is undoubtedly one of country’s biggest legends. He was in the industry for about 50 years. He has written over 1,000 songs, and after his death, they released the “Unearthed” compilation, which was four CDs of unreleased music.
He’s nothing like the country stars of today or even the country stars of his time. No flashing money, trucks, or beer; no, “I hate my husband,” “I’d cheat on my wife,” “I love women cause they’re hot.” No. The dude was a working class man. He sang for the poor, the prisoners, those down on their luck in life, whether by their own doing or because of the hand they were dealt.
While he primarily performed at the regular gig spots, he has a few recordings of him going to prisons and performing for prisoners. Having had an amphetamine addiction of his own, and lived through the Great Depression, he could relate with these people and knew that they were ultimately humans all the same.
Cash was a Native American activist too. Starting in the late 50s, he began working on an album that detailed their struggles. Alongside Johnny Horton and Peter La Farge, they wrote, performed and recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”
When he came to his record company with the finished product, they denied him. They basically told Cash, “You’re too smart, go elsewhere,” and encouraged him to leave the country music industry. Did Johnny leave? Nah. He called them cowards for ignoring their history in favor of the take-what-I-want cowboy and watched “Bitter Tears” rise to number two on the charts.
And it all circles back to his suit, his persona and who he was. The man in black. While originally worn because it was the only common color in his group’s wardrobe, he eventually took it as his primary dress. Johnny Cash wore it for the poor, the hungry, the prisoners and those caught in the loop of drug abuse.
In his Autobiography, Cash: The Autobiography he wrote, “The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Now I can’t continue into the top five without a couple shoutouts. “Hurt” was my first introduction to Johnny Cash and it really helped me construct the sad boy persona. And, of course, “Ring of Fire” because what could get you more pumped for a cross country meet?
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Now I myself am not a man of religion, however I can feel the retribution in Cash’s voice as he sings. This is sung by a man who has seen the wrongs of the world and a man who has seen what’s coming, and oh boy will I stomp along to the beat.
“Big Iron” was actually a cover of the famous Marty Robbins. Cash’s rendition tells the same story in a much more somber tone, almost like looking back on the past. The way I think of it is that Robbins’ is a spaghetti western, made at the height of cowboy gunslingers; Cash’s is the neo-western, looking back on the good times but realizing they’re gone.
“Ain’t No Grave.” If “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is the retribution, “Ain’t No Grave” is the revenge. This might be the closest to anger Cash gets in a song. The entire time is just him saying “Death won’t hold me, only the good Lord himself can break me from this path.” It is a solid power anthem.
“Danny Boy.” This song has a lot of personal meaning to me, a large part due to the one time I performed it. I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that Johnny Cash covered it. And he doesn’t just cover it; he adds a spin to make it his own, changing the lyrics and style to make it a Cash song. Needless to say, I love it.
“The Man Comes Around.” Now you might be thinking “Hey doesn’t this play at the end of his favorite movie, giving him an extreme bias towards this song?” Yeah? And? It took a few listens, but I really came around to this song. It’s one of the happiest Armageddon songs I’ve heard. The man just joyously sings that everyone is gonna die, and that it’s your choice as to where you’ll end up.
That’s all for this week. As always, send criticism and feedback to [email protected] I’ll see you all in the next one.