Tune Talk: Walk the Line with Johnny Cash

The Man in Black is Pure Money


iTunes photo

The man in black himself, Johnny Cash.

I don’t typically appreciate many “popular” musicians, because I usually break the mold for what’s popular. However, there are a few mainstream musical legends that I can truly say deserve to be called legends, and one of them is definitely the man in black, Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash was the fourth of seven children born in Kingsland, Arkansas. The family struggled financially and economically during the Great Depression, and their struggles were an inspiration for many of Cash’s later songs. Taught to play guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began writing songs at age twelve.

Not only was he a great American song writer, he was also a U.S. Military Veteran, serving in the Air force, where he met his first wife Vivian Liberto. However, due to his alcohol and drug abuse, and certainly not helped by his close relationship with later wife June Carter, they divorced. In 1968, Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter, creating the country-blues power couple that dominates pop-culture references of true love.

Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash

Now, I truly don’t like country music – the country music of today, anyway. Talking nonsensical jabber about riding your tractor into the mud and getting drunk in the back of your truck on a starlit night isn’t the kind of thing I look for in my music. I like my music to have meat to it, some real meaning. Johnny Cash is one of the greatest musicians of all time, and in my opinion, the greatest by far of his time. If you like music or listen to the radio and you haven’t at least heard of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” or “Walk the Line” then you either haven’t been paying very close attention, or you have only been listening to talk radio.

Johnny Cash is typically known as a country artist, but I wouldn’t really categorize him as such. To categorize him as country is to take away his deep-rolling blues sound, and negate the comedic style in some of his songs. Really, to try and reduce him to one genre is a thing of distinct disrespect to a man of such magnitude. Instead, I’ll say this. Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash. He’s an amazing artist that spans generations of listeners, and who is still relevant almost half of a century later.

The man in black may be notorious for his drug and alcohol abuse, but you truly have to give him credit for his poetic lyrics (he wrote the song “The Man in Black” in 30 minutes) and his soulful, nothing-but-from-the-heart vocals and sardonic wit. Johnny Cash is the epitome of not caring about what others think and living your life the way you want it. He hit hard some of the issues of his time in the most effective way he knew – through music – with no apologies for anyone.

Cash’s work changed a bit over his long career before his death in 2003, but not so that it was unrecognizable. Everything he ever did was distinctly Cash, whether it had a different rock flare, acoustic mourning sound, or otherwise. Everyone knows at least one Johnny Cash song, but if you want to delve in and listen to him more deeply than just knowing the popular songs, I would recommend starting out with a greatest hits album. It will have the familiar tracks, but it also songs that are less familiar, allowing you to take baby steps. His son also released a new album of Johnny’s unreleased songs called Out Among The Stars recently, on March 25. Admittedly, I had a hard time really enjoying him until recently, and a new obsession took off. But, once you start to really appreciate the sound that this simple farm boy can produce, and you realize how amazing his music really is, you won’t want to stop. I have never heard a sound like his. No one will ever have that same booming bass sound that Cash had.

“Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul. One of these days it won’t be long. I’ll rejoin them in a song. I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne.” – Johnny Cash, “The Family Circle”