This is turning into Johnny Cash Week at 317am. With his big memorial concert in Austin tonight, I can’t resist a second post on the singer, songwriter, and musician who brought me to that great American treasure trove, country music. I’ve been playing Johnny Cash CDs a lot this week and watching some video footage of him in concert.
What stands out for me is how Johnny Cash manages to combine two opposite qualities. The first is authenticity. Cash was a born with a voice that allows him to put across – no questions asked – a line like “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” from “Folsom Prison Blues.” Other examples come in what I think of as the genre of Mean Faithless Women songs. There’s “Cocaine Blues,” in which Johnny claims to a merry chick-a-boom beat that “early one morning while making the rounds I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down,” and from the late-career Cash we get the wonderful rendition of “Delia’s Gone,” which begins, “Delia, oh Delia, Delia all my life. If I hadn’t a shot poor Delia, I’d have had her for my wife.”
When Johnny Cash sings these songs, you believe the terrible things he says he’s done. But then he grins that country-boy grin and you know it’s all in fun – just spinning out a legend, telling a tall tale, giving us a song.
I never knew Johnny Cash the person, as opposed to his stage persona. But it makes me feel good to read his daughter Rosanne Cash’s memoir Composed, in which her dad plays a pretty prominent role. The marvelous thing about Johnny Cash, as remembered by his daughter, is that the grin is true to the man. Johnny – despite his share of tragedies, addictions, and the usual tribulations of fame and a life spent much on the road – was a good guy.
Here are a few stories that Rosanne tells about her father.
Johnny attending mass
Cash and his first wife, Rosanne’s mother, had been divorced for some years. The mom and kids lived in Southern California and the Cash children went to Tennessee to visit their father during the summer months. Johnny Cash took off each year to hang out with his kids. Rosanne did not realize till years later when she’d become a pro musician what it meant to give up the lucrative summer months of big outdoor concerts. Her mother was raising the kids as good Catholics, and though Johnny came from a different religious tradition, he took his children to Mass every Sunday. He sat and listened and made no comment – “never judging, never saying a word,” says Rosanne.
The old family songs
Rosanne Cash was born into an extended family of country musicians, and she believes the core theme of the music is family. When she graduated form high school, Johnny took her touring on the road with his show and gave her a list of 100 essential country songs to learn. As Rosanne remembers:
Years later I called my dad to ask him about the old songs – particularly songs about mothers, babies, brothers and sisters, fathers and grandparents. He gave me titles, years, and the names of the recording artists, and then he sang them to me over the phone, verse by verse, growing more excited with each new recollection. As he had an appointment to keep, he told me to call back the following day so we could continue to talk about the songs “for a long time.”
“I know all of them!” he boasted happily.
I thought about those old songs all night long and called him the next morning so he could sing the entirety of “Sweeter Than the Flowers” to me. He paused at the end as I scribbled down the lyrics.
“There’s a whole other group of songs if you’re interested,” he said.
“About what?” I asked.
“Dead dogs,” he answered solemnly and proceeded to rattle off a list of titles.
A town square in Scotland
At one point in his a career, Johnny Cash got interested in his Scottish ancestry and determined that his people way back had come from a rural corner of Scotland region known as Fife. In 1981 he filmed a TV special there at a castle called Falkland Palace. Twenty-two years later Rosanne Cash visited the town and found that her father was well remembered. One shopkeeper told her this:
My father liked to sit on a small cement post in front of the palace, Bob recalled, and to gaze at the square. All the townspeople came to speak to him, and he was unfailingly gracious and kind, which drew even more of the locals to him. He remembered that, one day, my father was in his car and came upon a boy whose bicycle had broken down in the road, so he picked him up and took him home. This boy, Bob explained, was now a man in his thirties, lived around the corner, and still loved to tell the story of the day he was driven home by Johnny Cash.
“Do you luff your father?”
On another trip abroad Rosanne played a small club in Oslo. Her description of what happened:
….we found a handful of Norwegian cowboys wearing tight jeans with big belt buckles and Stetson hats milling about. They clapped politely during my set and restrained themselves admirably, shouting requests for “Ring of Fire” only a couple of times. Despite the meager attendance, John [her brother] and I enjoyed ourselves, and after the show I went to the bar, where a lanky, ruddy-faced man in a black cowboy hat ambled – if Scandinavians can be said to amble – up to me.
He stared at me, unsmiling and silent. I extended my hand, a little nervously. He shook it, then said sternly, “Do you luff your fater?”
I was taken aback. “Yes,”’ I said uncertainly.
“No!” he bellowed in response. “I luff your fater.” He stabbed his forefinger into his chest to make his point.
Many of us luff Johnny Cash.