Johnny Cash: The American Storyteller

Sixty years ago one of the greatest American musicians began his career. It was actually sixty-one years ago that Johnny Cash first recorded “Hey Porter” for Sam Phillips at his legendary Sun Studios, but one year later, in 1955 the singer-songwriter released one of his seminal records: “Folsom Prison Blues” and began a career that would define him as America’s storyteller.

johnny-cash-cover

Johnny Cash’s musical career can be divided into five portions. First there was his early success at Sun, where his stripped down “boom chicka boom” sound was originated and perfected. Next came his early years at Columbia, where the studio tried to turn the country singer into a pop star, adding barbershop quartet backing to his soulful sound. The later years at Columbia featured the singer away from the top of the charts, where his music was largely ignored and his relevance was diminished. After Columbia, Cash went to Mercury records, where he spent a few years in obscurity, releasing nothing of note and largely disappearing from the music scene.

After Mercury, however, the head of American Records, Rick Rubin, offered him a contract. Though Rubin was known for his hip hop and metal music, he saw the potential in Cash that other labels did not. He offered him the chance to be what he was in the beginning: A story teller.

The albums (and many more unofficially released songs) they collaborated on together feature a mixture of Cash originals, Cash redos and Cash covers. The redos see the singer rerecord a few old hits, this time with the weariness of age giving them a deeper significance. The originals highlight Cash’s continued talent as a writer, with songs that speak to age, faith, love and loneliness. The standouts at American Records, though, were the covers. Cash recorded dozens of songs made famous by other artists; everyone from John Lennon to Tom Petty, from Sting to Trent Reznor. With many of these, Cash’s takes were so different from the original they might as well be entirely different songs. You can feel the weight behind each recording, as the aged singer infuses the tunes with his many years of joy and sadness.

The man battled addiction, arrest, divorce, career highs and lows, and at the end, the loss of his dearest companion. He had a lot of “life” that he poured into these covers.

A storyteller is not just a person who imagines fantasies from thin air. Many of the best storytellers are adapters, taking timeless tales and giving them new life. This was Disney’s magic as a producer. It’s George Lucas’ magic as a writer. And it was Johnny Cash’s magic as a singer.

If you’ve never experienced America’s storyteller, consider these as a sampling of the power behind his voice.

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If I Give My Soul

– from the album “Unearthed” (which features almost seventy songs not part of the core “American” releases)

The song was originally penned by Billy Joe Shaver. It tells the story of a deadbeat husband and father, formerly addicted to alcohol, seeking to make things right and be with his family again. In the song the man reaches out for one last ditch effort to reclaim his family: salvation. The song could easily be sung in a cynical way; the singer could be lying and could be insincere in his desire for redemption. The whole thing could be a naked abuse of the power of religion as a ploy to get back with his family. But listen to the way Cash sings it. He gives it a genuineness and an earnestness. He sings it straight, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ famous parable. The man in the song has reached the end of his rope and now he sees only one light left, a light he hopes that will not only save his soul, but his marriage and his family too. Listen to the line where the drunkard asks “If I give my soul…will my son love me again” and try not to tremble your lower lip.

Mercy Seat

– from the album “The Man Comes Around” (his final before dying)

A powerful set of lyrics is presented with great sadness here by Cash. The song tells the story of a murderer approaching, sitting upon and finally being killed by the electric chair. As he sings, the murderer contends his innocence, while also reflecting on death and the throne of God he is soon to stand before. That throne is depicted in conjunction with the electric chair, with both referred to as “The Mercy Seat.” The title is therefore a play on words, as the Mercy Seat in the Bible refers to the place whereupon God’s children can approach for forgiveness of sins. It is also, for the murderer, the chair of his death that he eventually comes to confess his crimes. As mentioned, he starts out steadfast that he is innocent, then begins talking about how there was no proof, before finally stating that he was a liar and did in fact murder the man. The power of the song is in the relentless and almost-monotone way Cash sings the refrain “and the mercy seat is…” over and over he sings it, only slightly raising the volume of his voice as the background pianos almost overpower him. Listen to the song, and notice how—even though it is unmistakably Cash—the singer completely loses himself in the role of the murderer. From arrogance to bitterness to eventual acceptance, the range he gives with so little change in his inflection is remarkable.

I Hung My Head

-from the album “The Man Comes Around”

The original singer, Sting, is not synonymous with country music the way Johnny Cash is, but he is a big fan of it (at least of classic country) and grew up enjoying TV Westerns. This song tells a simple and tragic story of a young man with his rifle out in the field. He catches sight of a rider and follows him with the scope of his gun (to practice his aim, he sings in the song). Suddenly the gun goes off without warning and the rider falls dead. In a panic the young man flees, hides his gun and eventually is found arrested. The weight of life and the power of death comes over him both in that moment and again as he is sentenced to be hanged for murder. The story is simple and Sting did it well, but it needed a proper cover from an actual cowboy. With Cash’s gravelly voice behind it, the sadness and horror of the song comes to life and each refrain of “I hung my head…I hung my head” brings chills. Again, this is his magic as a storyteller: The story is not his, but he tells it with such sincerity you believe it to have come from his mind, maybe even from his life.

Big Iron / Streets of Laredo / Give My Love to Rose

These three songs best represent the kind of “country” music genre Cash belonged to. Today there is an entire field of entertainers who call themselves “Country music singers” who barely deserve to hold a microphone, much less wear such a title. They sing about drinking, gambling, loving and leaving women, and more without any of the gravitas or tragic reality the old generation had. These three songs were famous fifty years ago; Marty Robbins first sang Big Iron; Streets of Laredo is a folk song with countless singers to its credit (through Robbins’ famous “Gunfighter Ballads” album featured a cover as well), and Give My Love to Rose is a Cash-original, first recorded in 1955.

But listen to the way they were sung back then, compared to the way Cash sings them…

Marty sings Big Iron almost like a pop song. The power of the story is lost in all the pep.

Streets of Laredo is given a sappy take, too shmaltzy and melodramatic for the true drama of the tune to capture the heart of the listener.

Even Cash’s own original cut of Give My Love to Rose is hampered by the “Boom Chicka Boom” sound that drove all his Sun records.

Now, listen to how Cash sang them in his final months alive.

Big Iron is essentially a TV Western episode in miniature. It tells the simple story of a feared outlaw gunfighter who is confronted by a ranger (who had a big iron pistol on his hip). The town assumes the kind ranger is doomed to die but the gunfight that ensues tells a different story. Cash’s slower, raspy take puts the listener at the feet of an elderly storyteller. You believe the singer was there, watching from a store window. He allows the story, not the tune, to take the spotlight, and the song is all the better for it.

Streets of Laredo, in the hands of Johnny Cash, is turned from a kitschy campfire tune to a heartbreaking ballad about a dying cowboy outlaw. Once again, the things today’s country singers sing about have little to do with the origins of the genre. If you want to hear true country music, this is it. This is “America” put to guitar. Cash’s voice quivers as he sings the last requests of the dying man (everything from “don’t mention the name of the man who killed me” to “get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin”). Considering this was among his final recordings, you can’t help but feel the sincerity behind the singing.

Give My Love to Rose is almost the exact same song as it was in 1955, only sung a little slower. The difference comes in the age the singer carries into the tune. The story of the song is similar to the previous; it’s about a man with a criminal past. He was a man who suffered for ten years in jail. Now he’s out, having served his time, ready to go home to his wife and son. Instead he was shot in the back and now is dying. There’s no anger in his voice or in his words, no bitterness that he won’t be with his beloved family. He just wants to ensure they are cared for. He entrusts all his money (and love) with a stranger, hoping he will find the words to convey how much his “Rose” and his son mean to him. As with the other American Records songs, Cash’s voice is weaker, deeper and weightier, not necessarily by choice, but simply by age. But that’s the point: In the case of this song, this is a man who, fifty years after first penning it, has finally earned the gravitas required to give this song its full effect.

~

Here we are, six decades after he first made his mark on music, and he is still touching people with his singing. Rick Rubin and Cash’s son (John Carter Cash) have said that as much as four albums worth of material have yet to be released. His time at American Records revitalized him, even as his health fell sharply in those final years. The freedom to sit on a stool (without all the over-produced, square peg/round hole additions by Columbia or Mercury) and tell his stories as he took his last breaths cemented his place as, not just America’s storyteller, but one of the finest storytellers ever.

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