Johnny Cash: ‘Man in Black’ transcended styles, ages

More than a music legend, Johnny Cash brought honesty, gravity to his craft

Daily Herald Music Critic

Pop culture thrives in the absurd. And absurd was the word two weeks ago for the image of Eminem, 50 Cent, Missy Elliot, Justin Timberlake and 71-year-old country music legend Johnny Cash vying for the same MTV video award.

Even though Cash lost, his very nomination was news at the hosting network, an organization know for its cultural amnesia, where the era of the late Kurt Cobain is considered prehistoric.

Even so, Cash, who died early Friday morning, managed in the past 10 years to connect with the MTV generation in a way none of his peers ever did.

He bridged enormous gaps of age and culture because of his well-documented history for taking unpopular political stands, his struggles between reckless behavior and his devout Christianity, his sympathy for the downhearted and his music that purged the darker realms of human experience and spirituality – all themes and attitudes that are cornerstones of rock music.

“There was something about the immediacy (of his music) and his attitude that spoke to everything I loved about punk music,” said Rob Miller, co-founder of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago-based country punk label whose roster is rooted in Cash’s influence.

‚ÄĚThere’s an emotional starkness to it. You don’t have any sort of sense that the Johnny Cash persona was conceived in a boardroom of record executives. That sort of naked honesty is ever so rare in today’s musical landscape,” he said.

Cash, who came to be know as “the Man in Black” for his taste in clothes and a hit song by the same name, watched his 30-year career begin fading in the mid-’80s when he was dropped by Columbia Records, the label he first recorded for in 1958. The populist arena country defined by Garth Brooks was beginning to rise, and traditionalists like Cash were considered too rough for mainstream America.

He resurfaced in 1994 with an unlikely partner: Rick Rubin, a producer known for his work with the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer and other hip hop and metal bands. Rubin looked to Cash as a singer who could connect with the somber solitary nature of songs by ’90s alternative rock icons like Soundgarden, Beck and Nine Inch Nails.

Over four subsequent albums on Rubin’s American Recordings label (with some reportedly more than 150 unreleased songs to come), Cash was re-introduced to the public in a stark, unplugged setting accompanied by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers along with guests like Fiona Apple and Nick Cave.

By setting songs from different eras alongside each other, the gravity of Cash’s music showed there was little difference between the despair of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Trent Reznor’s self-mutilation anthem “Hurt.”

Country radio mainly ignored the records, but they were immediately embraced by alternative rock and college stations, turning Cash into the Comeback Kid.

“Of all the friggin’ people, he had to go become a rock star to be counted again,” said singer Marty Stuart, who played on the Rubin albums and produced a 2002 Cash tribute album featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and others.

“Had it not been for Rick Rubin and American Recordings, he would have been just another old legend. He had to be beyond country music to be a country star.”

Luke Lewis, president of Lost Highway, the label that released Cash’s latest album in 2002, Cash and Rubin “made beautiful music together.”

“It was a true honor to witness him receive his first gold record in 30 years,” he said.

But even before the Rubin albums, Cash had developed a habit of looking outside the country music establishment for inspiration, particularly championing Bob Dylan in the late ’60s and early ’70s when Dylan’s career was waning.

Chicagoan Jon Langford, who co-founded the British art punk band The Mekons 26 years ago, met Cash several times in the late ’80s after Cash gave him his blessing for a punk-rock compilation Langford was organizing of Cash covers to benefit AIDS victims.

“He was always reaching out,” Langford said. “He was always open to all styles of music. He made a point of being political. He associated with downtrodden people, people in prison, people with AIDS. He constantly felt he had to justify what he was doing in the context of social concern.”

Langford said the first song he learned to play while growing up in Wales was Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” whose famous line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” is often connected to the metaphorical street tales in hip-hop.

“I don’t feel embarrassed to sing a Johnny Cash song. I think his music was deliberately made so anyone can play it,” Langford said. “People could identify with him. Here was a guy who was reckless and wild, but honest. I think his death comes at a really bad time for America.”

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