You may be interested to know that the Tennessee Three, Johnny Cash’s backing band, is still on tour after all these years. The amazing sound of Bob Wooten and WS Holland can still be heard, rockin’ hard. I think Bob Wooten’s guitar work on “Wreck of the Old 97” on the At San Quentin live album has got to be the wildest thing I’ve ever heard. I just found their website, and a cool blog about visiting the ruins of Cash’s house after it recently burned down. Check it out. If they’re in your area try to support them. It must take a lot of hard work to be a rockabilly band these days.
Maninblack.net gave the track listing for the final Cash American Recordings album, VI.
- “San Antonio”
- “Redemption Day”
- “Here Comes a Boy”
- “That’s Enough”
- “1st Corinthians 5:55”
- “I Can’t Help But Wonder”
- “Nine-Pound Hammer”
- “North to Alaska”
- “His Eyes on the Sparrow”
- “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again”
- “The Eye of an Eagle”
- “Don’t Take Everybody for Your Friend”
- “Loading Coal”
- “A Half a Mile a Day”
- “Flesh and Blood”
- “I Am a Pilgrim”
- “Beautiful Dreamer”
- “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down”
- “Family Bible”
See also the Wiki entry.
I consider it a terribly daunting task to talk about Johnny Cash and his music. Will Kimbrough has a spoken word song called “Pride” where, in a prophetic manner, he chastises those who pridefully use Jesus for their own war causes and says:
“I’m not bashing Jesus but how ’bout we read what Jesus said for once. I say for balance we take in a little Buddha–and Johnny Cash.”
In the pantheon of musical icons Johnny Cash is for our purposes what Hegel was to modernism, or Derrida to postmodernism. And yet, honesty dictates that we remember Cash as he was–a simple man. I must acknowledge that he had no patience for anyone who couldn’t communicate simply in a way that would serve the least educated. He’d had his fill of pompous exclusivists whether they be radio d-js, marketing execs, theologians, preachers, prison guards, or music critics.
There is a song on the posthumous American collection “Unearthed” titled “Singer of Songs” that I feel best describes how Cash viewed himself in this regard:
I’m not a savior, and I’m not a saint.
The man with the answers I certainly ain’t
I wouldn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong.
I’m just a singer of songs.
But I can take you for a walk along a little country stream.
I can make you see through lover’s eyes and understand their dreams.
I can help you hear a baby’s laugh and feel the joy it brings.
Yes, I can do it with the songs that I sing.
I’m not a prophet, and I’m not a priest.
I’m not a wise man who’s come from the East.
I wouldn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong.
I’m just a singer of songs.
But I can take you to a city where a Man was crucified.
I can tell you how He lived, and I can tell you why He died.
I can help proclaim the glory of this mighty King of kings.
Yes, I can do it with the songs I sing.
I’m not a great man. I don’t claim to be.
But when I meet my Maker and He questions me,
I won’t hang my head. I’ll stand proud and strong
and say, “I was a singer. Lord, I was a singer.
Yes, I was a singer of songs.
Cash’s styling of this song is breath-taking. With a solo guitar and piano joining in on the second verse we hear the power of this kind of song-singing. There can be no truer word spoken of John R. Cash than that until the day he died he loved song. This was the gift his mother told him he possessed as a child, and throughout his life he knew that he was at his best when he focused himself on that gift as his purpose. I think David is right about Cash being a lay theologian, but the beautiful thing about that was how his song stylings communicated whole volumes worth of material in simple and profound ways that he himself was just grateful to participate in.
In a 2003 NPR interview with Bob Edwards, Rick Rubin said of Cash:
“It was hard for him to sing a song that he didn’t relate to, but if he took time and really got inside what the song was about, for some reason his ability to convey emotion and tell a story really goes beyond sometimes what the original songwriter could do. He had an ability to convey messages and whatever he said, you believed him.”
Since 1994 so much song material has appeared from Johnny Cash, from reissues of his back catalog in extended form to the huge helping of new material from his American Recordings, that for the new collector it is quite daunting. Cash is a bard and song collector in the grand tradition of A.P. Carter of the Carter family. But Cash crossed all boundaries in pursuit of his songs and this can be seen early on in his interest in Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash saw all music stripped down to its bare form of voice, lyric, and notes. This is how he could become the song whether written by Paul Simon, Trent Reznor, or Nick Cave.
He seemed most interested in those songs that either allowed him to adopt a new personae or conveyed a transcendent state of being. Johnny embodied the art of self disclosure in Redemptive situations. When a song in the first person was honest, whether about killing or converting, he owned that song. Of course the closest songs to Johnny as we see on his album “Personal File” and the Unearthed disc “Mother’s Hymnbook” were songs of faith. Roseanne Cash referred to her dad as a “mystical Baptist” and one of Rick Rubin and Johnny’s favorite things was sharing communion together though they weren’t of the same religious background. Yet its very clear what kind of Christian Johnny Cash was. He has reintroduced the Christian gospel song back into the popular imagination in a way that regular churches could hardly do. He has shown how full of love for life Jesus is.
With his love for songs Johnny Cash embodies a relational Christology, a theologia crucis, and kenosis or God’s self-emptying. WH Vanstone wrote in The Risk of Love:
Theology, properly so called, is the record of a man’s wrestling with God. Wounded in some way or other by the struggle the man will certainly be, but in the end he will obtain the blessing promised to those who endure. The theologian in this respect is no different from the poet or dramatist.
This is why people relate to Johnny Cash on so many levels, whether as a Southern Gothic Man in Black “avatar of darkness,” as recovering drug addict, a hopeless romantic, or a home body-a family man. He loved life and shared it in so many ways in his songs. Did you know there is a Johnny Cash song for literally every stage of life from cradle to grave? It’s true. He cared about life and death and the afterlife because he knew that was important to God. He made his life an open book and had faith that God would use that. I believe He has and will for a long time to come.
Bill Friskics-Warren, “The Man in black and white, and every shade in Between: Johnny Cash is a complex, contradictory character. . . and “a pretty happy man”
No Depression, Iss. 42, November-December 2002.
One question I’ve been asked repeatedly is why I didn’t write about Johnny Cash in Redneck Liberation. This was not an intentional omission. But when I was constructing the various arguments in the book, for some reason, Johnny Cash and his songs did not pop up in my head. So here are some of the thins I wished I’d said about Johnny Cash in Redneck Liberation.
One of the central themes in Redneck Liberation involves the construction of romantic love as ultimate power—as a force that directs and controls human lives—and as “ultimate concern.” Several of Cash’s songs follow this central trajectory of country music, most notably “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire,” both of which portray love as an overwhelming power that effects a personal transformation comparable to a religious conversion.
As ultimate power, love can be destructive as well as creative/redemptive. The destructive power of love creates a sense of fated misery, seen in many of Cash’s songs, including “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and his many ventures into the hillbilly gothic tradition that entered country music through the Appalachian adaptation of English folksong and Celtic balladry. Cash’s deep baritone gives songs like “Delia’s Gone” and “Long Black Veil” a particularly dark mood.
Country music’s ability to expose the darkness at the heart of the human condition—what Hank Williams sang about in “Pictures from Life’s Other Side”—is where Cash excelled. Is there a more chilling line in all of recorded music than “I shot a man in
Reno, just to watch him die”? On this theme Cash resembles Flannery O’Connor in trying to prompt thoughts of redemption by plunging deeply in the depths of all that needs to be redeemed. Unlike, O’Connor, Cash completes the fall/redemption cycle by also singing songs of explicit Christian hope from the gospel song tradition.
Another major emphasis in Redneck Liberation is country music’s version of the “preferential option for the poor.” Here again Cash provides much reinforcement, not only in the music itself but also in the contexts of the performances. Prison songs and prison settings suggest an identification with society’s outcasts. Like Hank Williams and others, Cash also uses humor to express his identification with working-class folks and social outcasts, as in “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue.”
Cash was also a lay theologian. One of the ideas I keep in the back of my mind for a future book chapter or conference paper is an analysis of Cash’s Christology. He wrote a novelized version of Christ’s life entitled “The Man in White.” And his mid-career Christological cowboy song “The Greatest Cowboy of them All” has been supplemented in his recordings with producer Rick Rubin with several off-the-wall Christological and apocalyptic numbers.
These are some of the things I wish I’d written about in Redneck Liberation.
David Fillingim writes in his book Redneck Liberation that the Dixie Chicks are “the female act that best embodies the new ideal of Country Womanhood.” This involves a new look–(wardrobe, makeup, hair) which is control of their image, control of their sexuality, and I’ll say a new attitude. That new attitude involves a woman’s desire and ability to speak her mind whereever she wants. This, and the community-bond between band members are essentially the heart of the movie Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing.
Let me preface my thoughts by admitting that I’m not yet a true Dixie Chicks fan. I don’t yet own one of their albums. I have heard singles here and there and seen music videos. Watching the trailer for this movie on Youtube made me want to own it, you see, I am probably more fascinated with Natalie Mains attitude than her songs. I think any Texas girl willing to stick her neck out in England and say what she really thinks about the President has the sort of sass that can draw my attention.
As David’s book was published in 2003, I assume the whole controversy depicted in Shut Up & Sing had only just begun to surface. The movie takes us on the road, in their homes, backstage and in the birthing room for a biopic full of lusty anger, fear, protest, rage, that balances family and road life, and image/brand management. First Amendment rights are thrown up against market appeal and the question lays naked on the table: “How much attitude will music buyers stomach from the world’s first female superstar band?”
The Chicks clearly don’t want record sales and concert tickets to slip at any cost. Emily Robison says at one point that with seven children there is no way they’re going back to the pink RV. So the whole thing seems like some sort of heroic experiment. (That word heroic is so en vogue now isn’t it?) The Dixie Chicks are braving new ground for the rest of the music industry, testing the limits of their brand appeal and showing the world that a new Country Woman need never apologize for her beliefs.
The battle between Natalie Mains and Toby Keith is particularly enjoyable to watch, albeit in an annoying sort of way. Its clear that Keith and Mains both represent decidedly different political attitudes. Neither are lacking in motzy and not since the Outlaw movement have fans been treated to such salacious image rivalry.
A deeper question than that of freedom of speech and image control seems to be “What do the Dixie Chicks reveal about who is or is not in the Country Music Scene?” This question seems to have a simple answer at first. One could argue that Country Music has always been about a certain acceptable image dictated by the buying public tastes at a given point in history. But more important than what listeners want to buy is what listeners relate to.
Country music, then covers a multitude of sins—or at least encompasses a multitude of musical styles, themes, and backgrounds. Part of my challenge in this book will be to argue convincingly that country music really is the music of a marginalized people, when, at the time of this writing, country enjoys the widest popularity of all American radio formats and appeals to the wealthiest and best-educated of radio audiences. (p. 13)
In Shut Up & Sing we encounter Natalie Mains arguing to the Dixie Chicks manager that if Country music is finished with the Dixie Chicks than the Dixie Chicks will just be finished with Country music. They admit that what they are playing could be considered country music, but that if the people buying their albums aren’t country, than neither will their music be. The connection between the Chicks and their fans is a question mark in the movie. The bond between the band members is stronger than ever, but the political backlash for Natalie’s statement seems to drive a wedge of fear between the band and their audience. Maybe this is not true. Maybe its just the movie emphasis. Either way, in this instance the very genre of music in question is up for grabs because of the tension.
I’d like to point out here that this image tension is nothing new to Country music audiences. Its interesting that Rick Rubin produced the latest Dixie Chicks album. Rubin is the man behind the successful reworking of another controversial Country cross-over stylist, Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash made several careers out of controversy, with some folks believing perhaps up unto the day he died that he’d actually done time at San Quentin prison for the murders he sang about in his songs.
I really don’t know what to do with the image tension involved in Country music. If Country music is for poor white rural southerners, if it is supposed to tell their story, than someone should let radio stations know! Let’s face it. Since the late 1990s the demographic audience has shifted in radio. The internet and the IPod have made previously hard to find music much more readily available. So Country music need no longer be dictated by over the counter sales and radio polls. I would venture to say that many folks are like me in that they don’t even listen to the radio anymore. They have an IPod playlist. What constitutes Country is up for grabs like never before.
Maybe image tension reflects something deeper about human need and belonging. A singer relates to the songs as a part of herself on an intimate level and the listener is drawn to that. The listener is drawn into the bond between the singer and the song and feels a part of it. With enough of these songs an image develops and the singer is indebted both to the image and to the audience. Now, throw in enough money to set the singer’s lifestyle comfortably and an awful lot is at stake! Any number of things can get between the singer, the image, and the audience to hurt the expected bond. Maybe this whole tension, when it happens as often as it does in Country music, reveals a profound theological truth: We humans are never the sum of our creative expressions. While song has powerful spiritual effectiveness it is always limited to being symbolic. It points to ultimates but always falls victim to offering more than can be delivered.
I can’t verify it but this claims to be Johnny Cash’s final performance at the Carter family fold. Enjoy it.
Lucinda Williams is on the cover of the latest No Depression Magazine. I think of Lucinda as the “Queen of Melancholy.” Country gets no harder than Lucinda. No time for a lengthy bio here right now, but she is definitely on the list!