I missed the anniversary of his death a few days back, but it’s still hard to believe that Johnny Cash died eight years ago. A year or so before he died I watched the video for “Hurt” with some friends in college. “He’s going to die soon,” Someone said. Everyone was silent. He had said what everybody else was thinking, but no one wanted to acknowledge. We were possibly witnessing what could very well be Johnny Cash’s final moment on screen.
About a decade earlier, when I was in middle school I got my first introduction to Johnny Cash. I was watching a music special on PBS with my parents. The announcer said the performer’s name was “Johnny Cash” to a loud applause. I laughed a little bit at the thought. That can’t possibly be that dude’s name, I thought. When Cash actually appeared on screen, he was totally different than anything I was expecting. There was something commanding about him. The look in his eyes exuded a certain coolness. Slinging his guitar across his shoulder, he launched into “A Boy Named Sue”. To say, I had never heard anything like it would be an under-statement. It had everything – revenge, a misunderstood kid and a sense of humor.
I borrowed a collection of Cash’s greatest hits from my brother. Musically, it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. I did not want to listen to anything remotely associated with country. Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks were still huge at the time. I would never admit to any of my classmates, but I secretly liked it. There was an element of danger in Cash’s lyrics. He took a shot of cocaine? Damn, this guy is out of his mind. And then he shot his woman down?
Thanks to Rick Rubin’s American series, by the time I got to college it was cool to like Johnny Cash again. Several of the American albums were constantly played in the background as parties winded down. The stripped down covers brought out the best in Cash’s aged voice and sometimes even bettered the original – “Personal Jesus” being a perfect example.
The night after he died, I went to see Bruce Springsteen in DC. When we running a bit late, but as we climbed the stairwell we could hear Springsteen open up the show with a solo rendition of “I Walk the Line”. It was a beautiful arrangement, and a poignant moment. Springsteen’s voice seemed to ache as he sang the words. “I Walk the Line” was transformed from a declaration of love to a goodbye.
It seems that in the eight years since his death, Cash’s popularity has only increased. He was of the few American musicians whose influence and adoration reaches across generations and genres. Country artists love him as much as hip-hop artists. The photograph of Cash with his middle finger in the air, face snarling has become such a popular t-shirt image that it has almost replaced the Ramones logo shirt in popularity. It’s also obligatory for people to say they like all kinds of music but country – “except for Johnny Cash”. Even my mother likes Johnny Cash – which is totally surprising.
Certainly Cash’s outlaw image has played a significant part in this popularity so. His infamous “Reno” line has become something of the musical equivalent of Scarface. But more than that, Johnny Cash represents a certain defiance with an every-day attitude. Playing for prison in-mates wasn’t just an act of going against conventional wisdom, but one of solidarity.
And that, I think is the real reason people love Johnny Cash so much. You never got the idea that he was faking it.