In 1956, when he recorded "I Walk the Line" for Sun Records, Johnny Cash became an overnight sensation. But it was his many years of singing as if he knew from personal experience all of humankind's strengths and failings—as if he had both committed murder and been accepted into God's light—that made him a favorite of liberals and conservatives, MTV and the Grand Ole Opry, Gary Gilmore and Billy Graham. A tall piece of timber, Cash was often likened to John Wayne, to whom he otherwise bore only the slightest resemblance. The biggest difference was that Wayne never really lived up to (and probably only dimly comprehended) the democratic ideals he personified on screen—which were more likely the ideals of the directors he worked with anyway. Cash took on a greater variety of roles as a singer than Wayne did as an actor, and both he and the characters he gave voice to admitted their weaknesses. From song to song he was a cowboy or a white outcast who rode with Indians, a family man or a drifter, a believer in eternal life or a condemned murderer with no tomorrows anywhere. His credibility as all of these owed as much to the moral effort involved in endlessly putting himself in others' shoes as it did to his professional savvy in putting a song across.
Waking to the radio last September 12 and hearing that Cash had died in the middle of the night, I remembered thinking about Cash just days after the attacks two years earlier, while watching a nationally televised prayer service attended by the President and the First Lady and featuring a performance by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. It should have been moving—but as I listened to a mannered black diva render an old spiritual as if it were a European art song, it was impossible not to think that the occasion called for a more homegrown performance style. If the point was to rally Americans to draw on their inner resources, it would have been a comfort to hear from Johnny Cash, who stood for what Christopher Wren, his first biographer, called "the dignity of the commonplace and the redeeming grace of hard knocks."
I thought of Cash frequently in the weeks and months that followed 9/11, as music written in response to the attacks began to be released. With few exceptions, rock's singer-songwriters lapsed into their habitual pattern of dissent, and country singers beat the drums for retaliation. All of it reminded me of that period in the late 1960s, before public opinion solidified against the Vietnam War, when we heard "The Ballad of the Green Berets" and "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"—neither side giving any ground—and when Cash became a voice of reason. The lyrics to "I Walk the Line" pledge sexual fidelity regardless of temptation; but whenever Cash performed this song in the early 1970s (as he surely must have at every show), he might just as well have been describing his principled balancing act in opposing our military policy in Southeast Asia while continuing to voice support for our troops. "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues," "What Is Truth?," and "The Man in Black"—Cash's antiwar songs—weren't among his best numbers, and they didn't really say anything that countless rockers and folkies hadn't said already. They were powerful by virtue of who sang them: not a hippie leading a chant at Woodstock but a country-music icon who was risking the sort of ire unleashed last year against Natalie Maines, of the Dixie Chicks, when she told a British audience she was embarrassed that George W. Bush was a fellow Texan.
In 1969 The New York Times ran a Sunday magazine article on Cash titled "First Angry Man of Country Singers"—a reference not just to Cash's activism in behalf of prisoners and Indians but also to his having generally made life miserable for those closest to him, a few years earlier, when he was taking huge daily doses of amphetamines and barbiturates. If suicidal habits and self-destructive behavior are the primary definition of "angry," Hank Williams (for one) was years ahead of Cash. But unless you count Woody Guthrie—which the Nashville establishment does not, even though it should—Cash was country music's first protest singer. "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues" was released as a single in May of 1971, and it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that his performance of the song on television early that year marked a turning point: If Johnny Cash wasn't buying this war, why should anybody?
That performance was on Cash's own TV show, which aired on ABC from 1969 to 1971. According to his own accounts, Cash fought only two battles with his network bosses, who eventually gave in to him on both. One disagreement arose from his desire to introduce a hymn by declaring his own faith in Jesus. The other was over an appearance by Pete Seeger, whom Cash defended as "a good American as I've ever met." One can imagine the same thing being said of Cash.
In 1975, when an interviewer for Penthouse asked him if he was a political radical, he replied, "I'm just tryin' to be a good Christian"—a good Christian, but not a professional one, despite his many songs about Jesus and his tours as a member of his friend Billy Graham's Crusades. He was a Christian who didn't cast stones, a patriot who didn't play the flag card.
Cash's image evolved in tandem with his musical style. The albums that he recorded on the fly at Folsom and San Quentin in the late 1960s made do with a bare-bones instrumentation that recalled his early singles for Sun, and their crossover into pop may have been what convinced him that he was better off without the background choirs and instrumental "sweetening" featured on most of that day's country recordings, including too many of his own. He dispensed with other frills as well. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, around the same time that Frank Sinatra was popularizing the "concept" album, Cash brought the idea to country music. His album jackets often showed him costumed in keeping with a musical theme: he was a farmhand on Now, There Was a Song!, for example, and a gunfighter on both Ride This Train and Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West. By 1969, however, he had settled on one style of dress. In his frock coat and morning pants, he was "the man in black"—a look and a nickname, but also a singular persona. Though he said in the 1971 song of that name that he wore black to remind himself and his audiences of society's injustices, he must have known that it was flattering to him—and made him stand out from that era's rhinestone cowboys.
He was in his late thirties and already had plenty of mileage on him when he was discovered by television; longer hair and the shadows and dents of middle age brought out the character in his face, making him almost handsome. He appeared in a couple of movies around this time, but gave what I think of as his finest performance in John Frankenheimer's I Walk the Line (1970), for which he merely supplied the score. His songs do such a good job of letting us know what's going on in the mind of the character played by Gregory Peck (a small-town Tennessee sheriff in the grip of a midlife crisis) that it's as if he and Peck were sharing the role. The movie was a flop at the box office, but "Flesh and Blood"—perhaps the single most beautiful song Cash ever wrote, and one whose lyrics could stand alone as inspired nature poetry—reached No. 1 on the country charts.