I came to Johnny Cash via the 8 Track Player in my father’s ’72 VW Bus. The 8 Track player is something of a time marker these days – those who remember clicking that big brick of tape into the player has a carbon dating akin to “So…where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Our VW had a random assortment of 8 Tracks that would be cycled through on family roadtrips – The Statler Brothers, John Denver, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow, and the Man in Black – Johnny Cash.
Frankly, I was introduced to the ‘wrong’ cash – ‘bad currency’ if you will. I listened to the more hokey era of Cash’s career while reading Daredevil comics in the back of that bus – such tunes as “A Boy Named Sue” and “Look at them beans!” But the voice stayed with me – like a canyon dug out over centuries only waiting for a flood to fill it. The fact remains that Johnny Cash has tallied more Pop hit singles than Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson (including his Jackson 5 hits), the Four Seasons, David Bowie, the Supremes, Elton John, Billy Joel, Kenny Rogers, the combined totals of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel, Martin Gaye, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Kool & the Gang, Linda Ronstadt. Diana Ross, the combined total of all of the Osmond Family, Jerry Lee Lewis and the combined total of Lionel Richie and the Commodores.
It is the end of Johnny’s career that remains with me thanks to the Phoneix-like rise from the flames he had in the past decade with Rick Rubin and his American Recordings. Rubin did a very basic thing. As he reflected in working with Cash during those American Recording sessions – “I wanted to look beyond the music and find that voice” – a one of a kind original that had such fragile honesty that would unlock any song it worked with. Those last albums earned him Grammy Awards: American Recordings Best Folk Album 1994; Unchained – Best Country Album 1998 and Solitary Man – Best Country Male Vocal Performance 2000. Cash received the most coveted of Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999.
One of his last recordings was “My Mother’s Hymn Book” – a collection of the hymns included in his amazing box set and later released as a CD. These are spirituals he grew up with as a child of the Oklamhoma cotton fields. It is just Cash and his guitar, singing hurt and longing into hymns that brings you to silence. That voice and that honesty has earned the right to be heard on alternative stations like KEXP and turned him away from so-called Christian radio. In a time when honesty and humility are looking for a voice – Johnny Cash’s voice calls us back to honesty and humility in our listening.
To hear some outtakes from “My Mother’s Hymn Book” – go here.