Thursday, February 25, 2010

Birthday Tribute to Johnny Cash

The first time my daughter heard Johnny Cash, she was sitting in the back seat of the car in her child safety seat. She was barely 5 years old and as I often would, I was singing to her to make the road trip more bearable.

When I was just a young boy my mother told me son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns...

I would glance at her through the rear view mirror as I sang the words. She was off in her own little world, her mind encompassed in whatever thoughts travel through such a feckless childhood brain. It was hard for me to tell if she was listening to the lyrical phrases as I sang them to her, or if she was just in that Walt Disney princess world that most little girls seem to be in at the age of five.

Then I sang that fateful line...

Well I shot a man in Reno... Just to watch him die.

Suddenly it was as if she had been poked by a needle. He glance immediately met mine in the mirror, and she had that look of Woah!..  Did you just say what I thought you said? on her face. I gave her a smile assuring her that yes I said it, and don't worry. Everything is going to be alright.

I began to sing the next line of the song... But she interrupted me.

"Daddy," she said. "What is that song?"

"It's called by Folsom Prison Blues, sweetheart."

"Did you write it?" she asked, still gazing at me through the mirror.

"No baby," I answered. "It's a song by Johnny Cash."

The look on her face went from mild concern to genuine fascination. "Sing it again!"

That was five years ago, but I remember that moment like it was yesterday. She is 10 now, and Johnny Cash is still very much a part of her musical life, just as he was for me when I was a kid. He was the one musician who had that universal quality that held no barriers... No walls surrounded Johnny Cash. Country music fans adored him, as much as rock fans thought he was cool. He was dangerous enough to appeal to the punk rock scene and even hardcore fans considered him iconic...  And so did a 5 year-old little girl who suddenly found herself wrapped up in perhaps the most famous song lyric of all time, sung to her by her daddy as she sat in her safety seat during a long road trip.

Johnny Cash would have turned 78 years old tomorrow (February 26) had he not died six and a half years ago. Religion was just as much a part of his life as were the drugs he abused and his revolting attitude. In many ways I see myself through the eyes of Johnny Cash, without the fame of course, and the knack for writing great songs... But more in the aspect that he and I shared that same tortured soul syndrome... With a list of bad choices made throughout our lives, but the ability to humble ourselves in the eyes of God. Johnny meant so much more to me than just a song writer. I literally looked up to him as a figure of hope when my life would fall to shambles and as a halo of light when times were good. His beacon was bright, and it carried me through many hard times. His loyalty to God did not go unnoticed, and sometimes during the bad times the combination of his voice and lyrics would bring a tear to my eye as he sang the gospel... Just as his outlaw songs might other times bring out the cause for a whiskey celebration.

Like my daughter, my introduction to Johnny Cash was through my father. I loved to sit and listen to my dad play his guitar when I was a small boy, usually around a campfire with a notebook full of song lyrics that my mother had hand written from listening to a stack of vinyl records. He would play the songs of Ernest Tubb, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson. But the moment I would get most excited was when he would pick out that intro to Folsom Prison Blues on the guitar and start singing those lyrics. Anybody who happened to be sitting around the camp fire immediately seemed to fall into a hypnotic state as he sang the words... Well I hear that train a comin'.

Happy birthday, Mr. Cash. As you so eloquently sang with the Highwaymen, you may simply be a single drop of rain; but (you) will remain. And (you'll) be back again...

And again and again and again and again.



Robby said...

The release of the last American sessions is haunting. As you know I am not a religious man, yet those lyrics sung by Johnny bring tears to my eyes as I listen. Rick Rubin is a gifted man as well, his production of this album (as well as the others) has really given the public a window into Johnny's heart and soul.

David said...

I don't know if you were at the Farm aid show in Ames, but I would swear that he was playing an electric guitar during his way too short set. I think this was kind of rare for him, but maybe not. It also could have been an hallucination. They often haunt me when I go to concerts.

gooseneck said...

Robby, I couldn't agree with you more. I have turned those sessions on to so many people... My Father lastly at Christmas. They are chilling...

David, I was there. Perhaps the only concert that we both attended that we didn't travel to together? I remember that there was too much George Strait, and not enough Waylon, Johnny, or Neil.