I’d love to be in Austin, Texas, Friday night this week. There’s a big 80th birthday bash concert for Johnny Cash labeled “We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash.” Older “outlaw country” stars like Kris Kristofferson and Lucinda Williams will be there along with young traditionalists Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings, himself the son of the late outlaw great Waylon Jennings. Only one problem: no Man in Black. Johnny Cash died in 2003 at age 71.
Listening to the Mojo Nixon show on the Sirius XM Outlaw Country station a week or so back, I heard the irrepressible Mojo play a Cash number from late in his career, part of the stripped down, slowed down series of “American Recordings” produced by Rick Rubin. Johnny Cash was an old, ill man in these recordings, and he sounds exactly that. The unmistakable, robust voice of the great Johnny Cash, the one we know so well from “Folsom Prison Blues ,“ Ring of Fire,” “Orange Blossom Special,” and countless other Cash hits of the 1950s, ’60s, and ‘70s, is pretty much gone, replaced by a weak and often rasping Cash, a voice that’s still defines authenticity but in quite a different way.
The song ended and Mojo burst out with, “I don’t care what anyone says. I like Johnny Cash’s music with a chick-a-boom in it. Enough of this Rick Rubin bullshit.”
Much as I enjoy Mojo’s take on the world, I had to disagree. The beauty of a performer like Johnny Cash is that we don’t have to choose. There is the indelible early Cash, country music always with a propulsive drummer beating out a simple rhythm that gets inside your head. Try “Get Rhythm,” the story of a rhythmically gifted shoeshine boy, for the ultimate in this style.
Johnny Cash’s music of the chick-a-boom variety always seemed to be around on the radio when I was growing up, even though I did not listen to country stations in those days. Cash had managed to cross over with a few hits into the Top 40 on Pittsburgh’s KDKA, a middle-of-the-road station that played a mélange of pop songs from Cash to Patti Page and Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, and Frank Sinatra.
But I first realized that I really liked Johnny Cash when I was in college. We Allegheny College students lived up on the hill above a small town in Pennsylvania – Meadville – to be exact, and to a Pittsburgher like me, it seemed the end of the earth. The town had a single radio station that was always about two months behind the rest of the world in its playlist. Meadville was so isolated that you could never be certain of pulling in a radio station from the outside world. We cognoscenti of music up on the hill referred to the local radio fare, always with scorn, as “Meadville radio.”
One September Meadville radio got on a kick for the Cash version of “It Ain’t Me , Babe. “ This is the song with the emphatic chorus, “No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe. / It ain’t me you’re looking for, BABE.” In discussion with one of my hip friends (he listened to jazz albums), I can remember stating passionately that nobody could pronounce that second “babe” with more credibility and toughness than Johnny Cash. And he pointed out that Bob Dylan could, nuff said. It was the 1960s and I couldn’t very well challenge the Dylan card so I slunk away in defeat. But time has hallowed Johnny Cash. Sure, Dylan wrote the song and he put out a fine version, but it does not top Cash’s for working-man authenticity.
Again, with the wisdom of years, I understand that we do not have to choose between Cash and Dylan, and I felt considerably vindicated a few years later when Dylan – who idolized Cash, by the way – sought him out to sing some duets on his 1969 album “Nashville Skyline.” Their “Girl from the North Country” shows how well their talents mesh.
My best memory of Johnny Cash is the time we saw him in person at the Allentown, Pennsylvania, fairgrounds. It must have been 1969, the summer of Woodstock and just a few weeks after that seminal event for the Dylan culture. Cash, as I remember it, had a popular national TV show, and his tour that summer was like a live version of his TV show. Johnny and his wife June Carter Cash were the stars, but there were a lot of performers including Mother Maybelle Carter and the singing Carter Sisters and the early rockabilly king, Carl Perkins, the man who had a hit with “Blue Suede Shoes,” before Elvis did.
In any case it was a great concert on a stage set up on the front straightaway of a half-mile dirt track where I’d seen sprint cars run the previous summer. The highlight as I recall was a duet of “Jackson,” a hit for Johnny and his wife June. The song is in the ironic mode, with a great chick-a-boom beat to it, the key lines being “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout./We been talking bout Jackson ever since the fire went out.” Both Johnny and June get solos lamenting the state of their marriage and scorning their spouse’s dreams for the big city of Jackson, Mississippi, but they sing it with such good-humored zest that we in the grandstand understand they love each other with true passion.