it was the 1950s. elvis presley was building his fame and the young man in black was just beginning to walk the line. the ring of fire hadn’t started burning … but sam phillips was right in saying, “that cash, now he’ll be a rolling stone”.
the scene was flooded with rockabillies and folksters, the outlaw generation claiming game. nashville was undergoing a revolution, the radio waves would never again be the same.
my daddy was a 1950s kid so by the time johnny cash was flipping the bird to the camera at san quentin prison he was his own outlaw, rockin’ out to elvis and conway, cruising in his barracuda. well, that is his story anyway. (garth may not have been a rockabilly but he was a hillbilly farm boy no doubt.)
turn the dial forward about sixty years and i find myself in the trenches of melancholic music memories, aspirations induced by addiction and the reflections of a somber artist. no, not my own but the eloquent words of a storied life scribed in cash by johnny cash. reflective without conviction, remorseful but not guilt-ridden, cash pens an incredible autobiography that celebrates life for what it is: a beautiful epic, dark tales and all. i’m no musician and i’m definitely not religious but being a reader, participating in cash’s wisdom, was a spiritual experience in of itself.
there are four artists i always remember my dad fondly playing: conway twitty, kenny rogers, dolly parton and johnny cash. even though dolly is one charming darla, it was cash that always mystified me. perhaps it was because he wore that definitive black. perhaps it was because he was a renegade. perhaps it was because he was a gypsy. perhaps it was because he said “screw you society, i’m going to do things my way.” whatever it was, educating myself about his journey cemented my idolization of the man, the legend.
it is a statement like this that just makes him, well johnny cash: of his 1956 lincoln he writes, “cadillacs were for rock n’ rollers and i was a country boy. so i got me a lincoln instead. and it was perfect. a fine mix of rock n’ roll pink and johnny cash black.” classic.
(my dad’s 1974 barracuda was lumberjack green, in case you’re wondering).
but beyond the bad-ass, rogue renegade was a creative genius that finally found inner peace with family, religioius knowledge and roaming the land. reading about him now as an adult, going beyond the music junkie that the media beat him up for being, cash had some pressing life philosophies that i can identify with today (sans the staunch Christianity).
on acknowledging the people who will intertwine themselves with one’s life, cash reflects: “legends and lies, fools and drunks, old friends and angels. they all belong in this [story]”. uncountable characters will, and have, become part of my personal fabric but i reckon it will be the important, impactful ones that will guide me through, until the end.
on people of his vintage, cash describes, “ain’t no body like elvis. never was.” apparently there ain’t no body like cash. and there never will be. true, very few humans reach the fame of icon or legend, but we all get a shot at this crazy life, and we can rock it just the same. i plan to at least.
on his recurrent road to recovery from being an addict, cash writes, “it’s an ongoing struggle. i do know, though, that if i commit myself to God every morning and stay honest with Him and myself, i make it through the day just beautifully.” from this i don’t so much take the message of committing oneself to God as i do the underlying profoundness of the sentiment cash is attempting to convey: that life–regardless of what our moral or personal battles may be–is an ongoing struggle and a way to endure, to make the most of it, is to focus on the beautiful side of life, committing to the things (or beliefs) that centre you while all the while being honest to the core.
on retreating to his farmhouse in bon aqua for peaceful refuge from life on the road, cash indulges, “this is a great place for pottering. i can cook my own food, read my own books, tend my own garden, wander my own land. i can think, write, compose, study, rest and reflect in peace […] the creative process to which my mind is sometimes open happens, usually, without dialogue. it’s the more mundane stuff, where the ego meets the daily road, that makes up my internal chit-chat.” this confession of pottering about alone, time of solitude with one’s favourite things, and the murmur of conversation with oneself out loud is comforting to me, a fellow being that potters and talks to herself, reassuring me that such mannerisms are somewhat sane.
and finally, on connecting with his country roots, cash reflects, “i like to dig in the dirt. i like to work in the fields and the garden. i come up here [to bon aqua] and i wear a cap or an old straw hat, no shirt, no shoes, in summer. i live the life of a country boy. i love to and i need to.” perhaps it is time for this urban-city dweller to go back to her roots too–going country that is … small-town rockabilly to boot.
johnny cash always hoped that as he aged in his career and went upwards in life that he’d be able to relate to the younger generation. well mr cash, you’re nearly a decade gone and whilst i am not standing front row at the fillmore where you adored its youthful energy, i do have folsom prison blues playing in the background. and although i may wear a bit of colour from time to time i’m doing what i can “for the poor and beaten down, livin in the hopeless, hungry side of town”.
johnny cash, now there’s a cool definition of immortality.