is your own experience,
your own thoughts,
The great journalist Miriam Longino described Johnny Cashs voice
as like hearing God sing. She was right. The Man in Black
had a vocal quality in his profound words and songs that challenged us.
Cash could make you uncomfortable and sometimes he was terrifying. But,
until the end, he remained the embodiment of the South and all that is
good in the region. Billy Graham once introduced him at a mega-event in
Atlanta as the person who best personified America.
Johnny Cash held back nothing. He wore his problems and emotions for the
world to see. In pain for most of his life, he endured and never complained.
The pain of others affected him. The downtrodden, the prisoner, the homeless,
the prostitute, the addict, the despised, and how they were treated brought
out his outrage which he expressed so effectively through his songs.
Listen to Cashs version of the Kris Kristofferson masterpiece, Sunday
Morning Coming Down. Youll never feel the same about the homeless.
On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
Lord I wish I was stoned.
Cause theres something about a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And theres nothing short of dying,
Half as mournful as the sound,
Of sleeping city sidewalks,
And Sunday morning coming down.
the day of his death, college stations throughout the country played tributes
to Johnny Cash. Georgia State Universitys station dedicated 24 hours
of programming to The Man In Black, which wasnt so surprising since
it was younger listeners who had embraced the music he recorded on American
Records under the guidance of rock producer Rick Rubin. Listen, if you
dare, to all the emotions in Pain, the Nine Inch Nails song
covered by Cash, who offers anyone his empire of dirt. It
is a journey into the abyss of death.
Cash, of course, recorded his own compositions, one of the last being
his look at the Book of Revelations. Theres a man going around,
taking names, he warned. But, he was comfortable with the songs
of scores of others from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond. Its hard to
imagine any artist doing a finer interpretation of U2s peace anthem,
One, than Cash. Love is a temple, loves a higher
ground, Cash reaffirmed. Bono, who accompanied Cash with his guitar
on the recording, responded: Not since John the Baptist in the Wilderness
has their been a more effective voice for the common man than Johnny.
Although he never murdered anyone or served time in prison, Johnny Cash
divided his musical journey into a trilogy, Love, Murder and God.
By his own testimony, he, like most of us, was badly flawed. He found
refuge from demons (his song, The Beast in Me, is honest and
forthright) in his strongly held religious beliefs and abiding love for
his wife, June, and his children. Friendships were precious and several
legends I interviewed during the past three years including Waylon Jennings,
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had high praise for Johnny Cash.
accolades and tributes all are destined to gather dust on a shelf. Cash
had all these and much more plus significant wealth. He gave famed actor
Robert Duvall $8 million to help finance the production of Duvalls
screenplay, The Apostle, after Hollywood gave him the cold
shoulder. Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.
I saw Johnny Cash five times. The most memorable was in 1972 when he came
to Atlanta and perfomed at his expense to the first group of prisoners
who pioneered Georgias work release program. He sang about how much
he hated prisons and loved danger and missed his younger days when he
could raise a little hell. The prisoners loved it. So did the free world
Ill always remember Johnny Cash as a towering figure who was addicted
in equal portions to harmful substances and a genuine love of life. In
one song I have, he prays that God will give him some credit for never
being mean or small, or hurting a man when he was down. I believe
there is a new singer and guitar picker in Heaven today. Hes the
only one allowed to wear a black suit.
The most moving song I ever heard was Johnny Cashs version of the
gut wrenching Leonard Cohen song. It was made for Johnny:
Like a bird on a wire.
Like a drunk in
a midnight choir.
I have tried
in my way