On The Passing of John R. Cash
John R. "Johnny" Cash
By Wayne Brown
I knew his name long before I knew of the words that made up his songs. As a teenager of the 60’s, I had no way of knowing that this would be a unique voice that I would find great pleasure in returning to throughout my life. With word of his passing, I came to realize what an immense talent had passed from our presence. Without a doubt, John R. Cash will remain singularly unique throughout the passage of time.
Johnny Cash, the son of an Arkansas sharecropper, showed up on the doorstep of little Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in that same magical era which produced performers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, helped to hustle in the birth of "rock-a-billy" to the American music scene with these performers. Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two found their genre in the Sun Studio and rode it into the stars as their fame grew throughout the 60's to both national and global levels. Johnny Cash would become an iconic symbol in both country and pop music...a symbol which was bigger than life and illuminated as such each time he stepped up to the microphone and spoke the words, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash!"
Initially, I think it was the musical sound that lured me. I liked the “clickety-clack” that seemed ever-present, especially in the early work. In time, I came to realize my intrigue with this artist was not with the music or the voice, although both were quite unique. No, my attention was really focused on the man. As I experienced more and more of the Cash artistry, I found myself wanting to know more about the man behind this lonesome voice that sang so profoundly about the hardships of man and the conflicts of life. Here was a man truly blessed with the ability to communicate with the masses in word and song. The things that I could not seem to learn from the chapters of a history book became crystal clear when explained in a few lines of a Cash-trademarked song.
His words and song could cut across the vast expanse of time and pull the emotion right out of history. The pain of the American Indian, the challenges of life in the old west, and the lonesome ache from inside the prison walls all come through with such clarity that the listener seems to feel the experience first-hand. Here was a talent who could, in a few short words, explain the quick hands of outlaw gun-slinger, John Wesley Hardin, to the unaware and make them want to know more. If one had not been to Hell, here was a man that could take you there simply through his words with each one adding vivid colors to the mental picture.
Though Cash earned much of his success in the Country Music genre, he was an entertainer, a songwriter, and a musician who appreciate music in many genres. He was a man willing to give someone their chance when no one else wanted to listen. When record companies turned their backs on a young Bob Dylan, Cash featured him on his weekly television show. Kris Kristofferson might still be flying helicopters and writing songs that no one would hear had it not been for Johnny Cash. Cash collaborated with Wilie Nelson, Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings to grow and expand country music to audiences that had ignored it in the past. Each time he reached out to another style of music or to another unknown talent, Cash grew in his larger than life iconic image as the face of country music. For all the demons Johnny Cash fought in his life, he never turned his back on his fellow man or on those needing a leg up in the music business. His acts of outreach and his love of his own personal savior, his Lord on High, blew away the fog and mystery surrounding Cash and showed the true heart of the man.
Cash holds the distinction of having been honored in both the Rock 'N Roll and Country Music Hall of Fame. His music has spanned the charts of both pop and country music over the decades of his celebrity. His trademark sound is as fresh today as it was when he first appeared on the scene with Luther Perkins picking out that steady train-like rhythm on his Fender guitar. That sound came to signal that Johnny Cash was in the building...the one and only Johnny Cash.
One’s memories of John R. Cash can only be balanced by the depth of their experience with his music and with the man. For those with only a superficial awareness, his work will be represented in a handful of songs that show little of the true depth of talent or the complexity of the man. For others, myself included, his talent and words will have impact on my life forever. His unique talent will always be easily within our reach through his many songs. We will never be far from the memory of his significant impression on this world. God Bless John R. Cash.
12 Sep 2003
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