God’s Lonely Man

Johnny Cash was a Christian who didn't cast stones, a patriot who wasn't a bully

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.

With maturity Cash grew into his voice. To read his obituaries, one might think that his credibility as a singer depended entirely on his credibility as a man. True, he never developed his upper range to the point where he could trust it, and the clear emphasis he gave every single word would have precluded gliding from note to note even if he had been able to. Among the singers of his own generation he lacked the bravura and the sheer lung power of such country Carusos as Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Roy Orbison, Ferlin Husky, and the young Waylon Jennings. We tend not to value deep voices as much as we do high, soaring ones, perhaps because the effort involved in producing a low note is less apparent. Something about hearing a singer go low strikes most ears as a trick, a human special effect. The bass singer does the grunt work in doo-wop and rhythm and blues, sometimes literally. There is a style of country music, however, in which a male singer's descent to a virile low note at the end of a phrase, or for the closing chorus, supplies the same payoff as a soul singer's falsetto—one conveys masculine certainty and the other uncontrollable passion, but each signifies a moment of truth. No country singer was better at this than Cash, and few singers in any field of music have been as expressive or as instantly recognizable.

Cash wasn't usually thought of as a folk singer, but in terms of updating traditional material and writing new songs in the same vein, he was the closest thing to an authentic troubadour to emerge since the end of World War II. "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (1958), about a headstrong young man who comes to a violent end after ignoring his mother's advice, was based on an Irish ballad that found its way to the American South. "Five Feet High and Rising" (1959), about the devastation caused by a 1937 flood of the Mississippi, was entirely his own creation. Anyone listening to these two songs and unfamiliar with their sources would be hard put to guess which was traditional and which original. Possibly at the instigation of Seeger and Bob Dylan, Cash performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. It was Freedom Summer, and the festival was a recruiting ground for the voter-registration movement and for leftist causes in general. The presence of a country-music star must have raised a few eyebrows. But the organizers must have recognized that Cash virtually defined folk music in his relationship to his primary audience—a country-music audience that embraced him because his music reflected their experience, even if his political beliefs occasionally differed from theirs.

Cash was one of the original Sun rockabillies, along with Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the forgotten Warren Smith and Billy Lee Riley—like him, southerners who had grown up aspiring to country stardom before anyone had ever heard of rock-and-roll. Yet Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty smiled on Cash as one of their own: they heard something close to rock-and-roll in his music, and recognized it for sure in his independent stance. After country radio turned its back on his generation in the 1990s, in favor of young beefcake cowpokes like Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, Cash attracted the attention of MTV by recording his own versions of songs by groups such as Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails for Rick Rubin, a producer identified with rap and heavy metal.

For all that, whenever Cash made the Top 40 (as he did with some regularity for twenty years, beginning in 1956 with "I Walk the Line"), it was always with what sounded like a country song, not one that conformed to current pop trends. Country-music record buyers didn't extend him the same loyalty, nor did the Nashville power brokers. Cash was a posthumous winner in three categories at last year's Country Music Association Awards. American IV: The Man Comes Around, his fourth album for Rubin and the last to be released before his death, was named Album of the Year, and his version of "Hurt"—a song written by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails—won for Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year. But there was an air of atonement to these awards, which were given out in November, less than two months after Cash's death. Not counting his election to the association's Hall of Fame, in 1980 (the equivalent of being kicked upstairs), he hadn't received a CMA award since 1969. The association had completely ignored American Recordings, his first album for Rubin and arguably his greatest work, even though it won a Grammy as the best contemporary folk recording of 1994. Cash was in any case never part of the country-music establishment, and at the height of his celebrity, in the early 1970s, he towered above it.

From the archives:

"Old-new Bluegrass" (October 1999)
Steve Earle draws on the surprisingly recent roots of bluegrass to make pleasingly extreme music. By William Hogeland

"Napolean in Rags" (May 1999)
Bob Dylan changed the popular music of his time and the music that followed, and the commercial release of a formerly bootlegged concert recording shows how he did it. By Francis Davis

Cash wasn't an outlaw—just an outsider, in a way that had nothing to do with stage image. He even seemed a little out of place in the Highwaymen, the country-music supergroup he started recording with in the 1980s, which also featured the shaggy Nashville "outlaws" Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. His singing and the way he carried himself did influence a number of country singers of his generation and slightly younger, most notably Merle Haggard and Kristofferson. But among today's younger country performers, the only ones who sound like they've listened much to Cash are somehow related to him: his daughter Rosanne Cash, his stepdaughter Carlene Carter, and his former sons-in-law Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell. Where his influence is still widespread is in the work of performers ignored by country stations but likely to be on the playlists of classic-rock stations and public radio's World Café—such younger singer-songwriters as Steve Earle and Billy Bragg, along with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

In the movie Taxi Driver, Cybill Shepherd tells Robert De Niro that he reminds her of Kris Kristofferson's song "The Pilgrim": "He's a walking contradiction / Partly truth and partly fiction." That song was actually Kristofferson's homage to Cash; but the line from the movie that best describes him is "God's lonely man," De Niro's reference to himself. Cash seemed a man alone even when surrounded by his family on stage, and there was a brooding quality to even his songs about doing right by his fellow man and finding redemption through Jesus.

"Cheating" songs are a dime a dozen in country, but the one of Cash's that most readily comes to mind may be unique: his adaptation of the traditional ballad "The Long Black Veil," whose narrator chooses to hang for a murder he didn't commit rather than reveal that he was in bed with his best friend's wife on the night in question. His songs about the wild life usually end with someone either serving time or bleeding to death on a barroom floor.

Cash identified with society's victims, but the true measure of his compassion was his realization that some of us become victims of our own dark impulses. The inmates we hear cheering for him on the albums he recorded at Folsom and San Quentin sensed his empathy for them, even though they may have misinterpreted it. According to legend, many of these men believed that Cash was one of them—that he had served hard time himself. In truth his jail time was limited to what he often humorously described as "seven one-night stands" in the 1950s and early 1960s, all after busts for drunkenness or possession when he was popping pills. On both albums the loudest cheers —the most frightening ones—come during "Folsom Prison Blues," when Cash delivers his famous line about killing a man in Reno "just to watch him die." The prisoners we hear whooping at that line took it to be a boast; but Cash once wrote that he had written it after asking himself what was the most unforgivable reason he could imagine for taking another person's life. He was the favorite singer of Gary Gilmore, who was especially fond of "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." It's too bad Gilmore didn't live to hear "Delia's Gone," the opening number on American Recordings. No other song I know has ever probed so chillingly the mind of a murderer—particularly the ability of a psychopath to dissociate himself from his own deeds.

For the most part, American Recordings presented Cash alone, accompanying himself on guitar. The album's beauty was in its starkness and simplicity, with Rubin producing Cash in much the same way that country blues performers were recorded in the 1930s: just sit the man down and roll the tapes while he sings whatever he wants to—his own songs along with others he knows and likes. In their own way, Cash's interpretations of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" and Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me" (a song actually written for him by another of his former sons-in-law) were just as compelling as "Delia's Gone." Three of the album's new songs rank among the most touching Cash ever wrote: "Oh, Bury Me Not," a variation on an old cowboy lament with a half-spoken introduction in which Cash tells us he senses God's hand in nature more than he does in churches; "Drive On," in which he sings from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran who's leading a normal life though still haunted by his wartime experiences; and "Like a Soldier," a love song presumably addressed either to Jesus or to June Carter Cash, and so gorgeous it hardly matters which.

American Recordings represented an apotheosis, but the albums that followed it were overproduced and unextraordinary; the musicians who accompanied Cash on them somehow managed to sound at once sympathetic and superfluous. Cash was no longer in good voice, and the newer songs that Rubin chose for him (death figured in quite a few) wallowed in a kind of adolescent self-pity that made them all wrong for a performer who, whatever else he was, was always an adult. It turns out that some of the best performances Cash recorded for Rubin were passed over for release until after his death, and finally surfaced on the unfortunately titled Cash Unearthed, a five-CD boxed set that arrived in stores in November. My favorite of these is Cash's version of Billy Joe Shaver's "If I Give My Soul," in which a man bargains with the Lord in much the same way that Robert Johnson is said to have bargained with the devil at a Mississippi crossroads—except that instead of prowess on the guitar, this man's asking price is sobriety and winning back the love of his estranged wife and son. It's a song full of adult sorrow that leaves "Hurt" in the dust.

Whatever his actual relationship to rock-and-roll, Cash was the only surviving performer from its first wave who was still in the thick of things at the beginning of the new century (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard having long ago accepted their fate as oldies acts). Rock-and-roll has been with us for almost fifty years now—an eternity by the standards of popular music, but well short of the average human life-span. Until very recently the only dead rock-and-rollers were the ones who died young—casualties of their own bad habits, of car wrecks and plane crashes, of wronged women and obsessed fans with guns. For all their shortcomings, Cash's last few CDs exerted considerable power by presenting us with something we hadn't really heard before in pop music: a man long past middle age confronting his own mortality, and implicitly asking us to contemplate ours.

Cash made the cover of Time following his death, and inside was an eloquent meditation on his career by Richard Corliss. But what really caught my eye was an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Daily News, headlined "WHY THIS LESBIAN LOVED THE MAN IN BLACK." The writer, Debbie Woodell, lovingly recalled how she and her brother used to sing along as children to their grandparents' Lefty Frizzell and Eddy Arnold records. "But not Johnny. With Johnny, we listened." There was a tribute to Cash at the Country Music Awards in November, with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Travis Tritt, Sheryl Crow, Hank Williams Jr., and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all singing his songs and wearing black in his honor. Yet to me, a more meaningful tribute was the Johnny Cash album covers I saw in the windows of a few New York used-record stores well into the fall. Many of these shops didn't even carry country music; the owners or employees had brought in albums from their own collections. It reminded me of a scene in the movie High Fidelity, when John Cusack, playing the owner of a store called Championship Vinyl, faces us and says, deadpan, "My all-time favorite book is Johnny Cash's autobiography Cash, by Johnny Cash." Nothing if not ironic, he's aware of the humor in his repetition, but you can tell he sincerely loves saying the name. There are some of us for whom music is a form of religion as well as an addiction, filling the same need in our lives that our President says Scripture fills in his. If the point of having Cash record songs by Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails was to make it hip to like him again, Rubin needn't have bothered. For us, it's always been hip to like Johnny Cash. You could even say it's one of the definitions.