I am not a country music fan, in fact, I have spent a good portion of my life ridiculing its languorous laments of lost trucks, lost jobs, lost dogs or lost women – with most songs assigning importance in that order. During my years in college, modern country music was enjoying growing popularity – spearheaded by the success of the damnable “song” Achey Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus.* I remember wanting to achey breaky the nearest radio every time it came on. The twang, the lyrics, the line dancing, it all had to go. However, my genuine and outward display of disaffection for country music was complicated by my affection for the music of Johnny Cash.
In order to justify this odd dichotomy, I have to go about mentally splitting country music into three distinct genres: 1) modern country, which I hate, 2) classic country, which I mostly hate, except for Johnny Cash, and MAYBE one or two others, 3) and alt-country, which I love – oddly enough. It might be confusing how I could hate country music and like Johnny Cash (and alt-country), but it should be noted that several of Johnny’s songs fared rather well on the pop charts too. Furthermore, I have read that Nashville didn’t exactly embrace him, which also sets him apart. Perhaps he wasn’t country enough for them, and perhaps that why I like his music so much. I listen to “Ring of Fire” or “I Walk the Line” and I don’t hear country, I hear Johnny Cash.
As for alt-country, respected bands like Wilco have earned respect in the world of alternate rock, but not in the trailer park of country music. See, it all makes sense, really. Oh, in case you’re wondering… no, I am not rationalizing too aggressively.
I am further comforted by the fact that on Friday, the day of his passing, San Diego’s local alternative rock radio station dedicated the entire day to Johnny Cash. It played tribute to The Man in Black by playing several classic standards, as well as the many collaborations and covers from his recent forays into the modern rock world. I remember the first time I heard “The Wanderer” on U2’s Zooropa album. There is something about Johnny’s voice that cuts you to the core. There is an honesty and earnestness there that I have heard in few other songs. I am obviously not alone, which is why other artists, like Bono, have wanted to collaborate with him. On Friday, Bono made a statement calling him an oak tree in a garden full of weeds.
As the pre-prepared retrospectives began playing on TV and radio after the announcement of his death, I was made aware of some of Johnny’s more recent projects. Critical acclaim was largely directed toward his cover of the song “Hurt” originally performed by hard rock band, Nine Inch Nails. I was familiar with the song and was very interested in hearing how Johnny would treat it. After listening to the song and seeing the video, I understood why it was getting so much attention. It was amazing to see how closely the song paralleled his life.
On Friday I had lunch with an old high school friend as previously planned earlier that week. As we met outside the local Mexican joint, I noticed that he was wearing a white T-shirt with the words “Johnny Cash Went Home” on the front – each word occupying its own line. At first, I thought someone was already capitalizing on Johnny’s passing to sell shirts, and then I noticed that it was drawn on with permanent marker. It was a quick improvisation to honor a great man - a man who transcended musical genres. I can say this with greater authority after seeing my friend, as I am pretty sure we spent some time together in high school mocking country music together.
*To my credit, I had to look up the name of the “artist” on the Internet.