On Johnny Cash

“How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell.”

I have a special place in my heart for Johnny Cash and his American series of albums. According to NPR, these were produced the decade leading up to his death in 2003 and they are some of the darkest, most introspective and evocative songs of his career. He explores religion and sin, reflects on his life, those he let down, those he has hurt and wonders about where he is bound. American holds some of his most potent and sorrowful songs, every single word striking true. Even the covers were carefully chosen and undergo transformation in Cash’s apologetic baritone. In the twilight of his life, Cash continued to enthral us. Remember what he sang in Man in Black: 

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

True, he might seem mighty preachy at times but American is more of a documentation of Cash’s struggle with his drug/alcohol problems, the moral degradation he saw all around and how he reconciled this with his faith. He bares himself, cuts right down to the bone and the humanity in his voice is truly striking.

Aside from his originals like I Walk The Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire, listen to his legendary covers of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (absolutely devastating, resignation in every note), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on A Wire, U2’s One, Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down, Sting’s I Hung My Head, Gore’s Personal Jesus, Will Oldham’s I See A Darkness countless others. Traditional folk songs like Wayfaring Stranger, God’s Gonna Cut You Down…

Here is a playlist for the best of Johnny Cash; it’s not supposed to be exhaustive.

I play his songs (especially American III: Solitary Man) in the middle of the night, to hear his gravelly voice cry out into the humid darkness:

Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

On another note, his relationship with June Carter remains one of the best love stories in music history, a love that changed the man in black.

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

– Johnny Cash, when asked for his definition of paradise.

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