Oh December, you beautiful infuriating month you. I knew I would be exhausted this month, but I was also determined to do another entry for the Deep Dive Music Project this month. So here are some general thoughts I had listening to some of Johnny Cash’s songs.
Johnny Cash’s music was pretty basic.
I don’t mean to come off like a snob when I say this. Basic isn’t bad. Actually basic can be great. The songs I listened to this month often shared at least one of these common traits. Usually a run time of under 3 minutes, in a standard 4/4 time, often in a major key, in moderate to moderately fast tempo. Most of the songs were Johnny Cash singing (obviously) and playing guitar, maybe his wife June Carter Cash singing a duet, and perhaps his backing band the Tennessee Three playing as well. Some songs were just Johnny Cash and his guitar. While I love big productions on albums and rich lush sounds there’s something to be said for the simple combination of just a singer and a guitar. Johnny Cash was not a guitar virtuoso the way Prince was; Cash was a different kind of musician, and that’s okay. Not everyone can be some insanely talented musical prodigy.
What I think Johnny Cash’s music has (even some 50 plus years later) is an honesty to it. This authenticity helped him reach an audience not just in country music, but also in folk, gospel and even rock. Authenticity in this case doesn’t mean “this song is a true and factual recounting of events” because country and folk music is often based on legends, stories, and myths (though not always). And I think Johnny Cash himself became a legendary person in music. He became part of this mythos of country music, or at least country music at that time.
Johnny Cash was an interesting figure who appealed to every day Americans, yet who became this larger than life persona. Cash sang of love, drugs, murder, adultery, sinners, salvation and a myriad of other topics. Maybe Johnny Cash never spent time in prison (he was arrested a few times, mostly for drug-related charges, but one time for picking flowers…or so he says), yet his music connected with those serving at Folsom and San Quentin prisons when he went there to perform. Cash was not perfect and had issues with drugs, alcohol, and infidelity among other things (of which he sang about). And yet he also had a strong faith in God, and sang gospel songs and hymns, not under a guise of “I’m perfect so you should listen to me” but under the guise of “I’ve made mistakes, I’m not perfect, learn from me.”
And this might seem obvious, but Cash wasn’t perfect. He was flawed. His music was flawed, and these flaws give his music character. I know the enjoyment of music is subjective (we all have different tastes in the music we like and don’t), but I also mean flaws in a literal way. For example in the original recording of “Walk the Line” Cash apparently sings the wrong note at one point near the end (he goes flat). I’d heard this song several times before and I never really noticed this mistake until it was pointed out to me. But again I think that shows the sort of authenticity and rawness that Cash’s music has.
In fact, Johnny Cash songs are some of the few that I prefer (when possible) to hear the live version of, rather than the recorded studio version. Usually, I’m not a fan of live recordings compared to studio recordings. Often I find the audience cheering to be too loud or go on too long for live recordings. With Johnny Cash’s music, I found the live recordings of his songs to be more enjoyable. Not because Cash was some perfect performer, but because of the rawness of the live performances. And I realize the two live albums I listened to were both recorded live in prisons (At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin), but I did listen to a handful of other songs from some of Cash’s other live albums. I don’t want to say the studio-recorded albums are more polished (I mean they are), but there’s a spirit to his live songs that I really enjoy. And anytime Johnny introduces his wife June Carter Cash and they start singing together, well again it’s not perfect, but it is kind of magic.
Finally, I should say that this month (more than any other in the Deep Dive Music Project so far)
I really haven’t separated the artist from the art. To understand and appreciate Johnny Cash’s music (or the small number of his songs I was able to listen to this month) I’ve done “research” about Johnny Cash rather than just listening to the music in a vacuum and trying to come up with my own impressions. And part of this is because like Prince (or like it will be for David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye) Cash’s presence in the music industry isn’t one where I can come at this from a blank slate.
For example when I came across the album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian or his seminal album At Folsom Prison, or the chart-topping album At San Quentin I knew I’d need to do a little research to learn more about these albums, their place in Cash’s discography, and their place in music history. For example, the live recordings he did in prisons like San Quentin and Folsom made Cash a voice for prison reform at a time (in the 1970s) when such a concept was not a mainstream idea. And Bitter Tears was an album that Cash made to share the plight of Indigenous peoples with a mainstream country music audience (and this was in 1964 when such things didn’t happen). At the time of recording that album Cash thought he was part Cherokee, and he put out a public letter in Billboard Magazine chastising radio stations that refused to play songs from the album. Of course, the history isn’t that cut and dry, because Cash (later on) found out he wasn’t part Cherokee, and this was also during a period when Cash was highly addicted to drugs and alcohol. Despite the fact he was a legendary figure in music (particularly in country music) it’s important not to view Cash as some sort of godlike figure, but as just a person.
So more than just listening to the songs this month I’ve also been listening to podcasts about Johnny Cash’s music. I’ve been watching video clips of his live concerts on YouTube. I’ve watched a few documentaries about Johnny Cash and his life. Netflix has one about the time he and June Carter Cash performed at the White House in 1970 when Richard Nixon was president, and it was really interesting. I watched the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line again (although I understand biopics might take some liberties and aren’t meant to be documentaries). With Cash’s music, it’s not so much that the individual songs are bad (they’re not), but just that his music as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
With all this said (or written I guess) I will still admit that country music isn’t my preferred genre of music. I’m likely not to become obsessed with Johnny Cash’s music, or have any of Cash’s songs as my most listened to songs next year. But I do feel like a have a bit of a better understanding of Cash’s music and its place in music history. And sometimes music hits me after the fact (I’m not exactly the person who stays up to date with music trends), so maybe I’ll revisit more of Johnny Cash’s music at a later date.
What’s your favourite Johnny Cash song or album?
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