Sunday, May 18, 2008

Down the Tracks, Steve Turner, The Man Called Cash

"I think Springsteen says it better than any of us did" Johnny Cash

I imagine that quote might be the biggest compliment Springsteen ever got from another artist. Taken from Steve Turner's biography, Cash said these words when asked about his "Johnny 99" album from 1983, on which he covered the title track and "Highway Patrolman". Though once a giant in music, Cash's career was in a slump at a time. Though Cash was still a much respected figure in country music, he didn't write the songs anymore that captivated a nation. I imagine that he looked at Springsteen's success with some nostalgia, remembering the time he spoke for the disenfranchised in much the same way. "He's the master of these songs, he's such a prolific writer" Cash relates, "I guess youth has a lot to do with it". The album proved to be Cash's second to last album before Columbia records foolishly set him out with the trash, like putting a Rembrandt through the paper shredder. Ten years down the line Rick Rubin would make Cash eat his words about youth, and Columbia hang its corporate head in shame, when he revived Cash's career on American Recordings. Allowing Cash a renaissance in the fall years of his life.

Steve Turner's book, The Man Called Cash, was the first biography that chronicled Cash's entire career right up till his passing on September 12th 2003. The book proved to be a very good companion reader next to Cash's own autobiography published in 1997. Though Cash arguably tells his own story better himself, Turner dispelled some myths from the that book and the movie that hit the theaters shortly after his death. As Turner explains in his book, Cash liked to stretch the truth a little bit from time to time, to make the story more compelling. Turner does an excellent job in chronicling Cash's career and is effective in explaining Cash's lasting appeal. Turner demonstrates how Cash was marketed outside of the Country scene and how his singular views appealed to both the conservative and religious Country fans as well as to the protest generation. Turner even touches on a part of R&R history that other Rock historians tend to ignore. When the protest generation began to show his flaws, some might even say proved to be morally bankrupt, they were overtaken by a Christian version spearheaded by Billy Graham and Johnny Cash. For a while the Jesus Freaks, as they were called, replaced the protest generation, fusing the free spirit of the sixties with religious conservatism.

Turner traces Cash's journey from being a Hillbilly hero to becoming an outlaw, from being a national television star to a relic from the past, to ultimately being an alternative rock darling and elderly statesmen. Few artists have had so many incarnations as Cash, few have been so consistent as Cash at the same time. Like no other artist Cash was aware that "no man is good all the time and no men is bad all the time". We carry both sides of the coin in us, Cash acknowledged both. Cash was not affraid to show that life was falling down as much as climbing up. Cash was as much humble before God as he was a backslider and didn't hesitate to show both sides of himself. Nor was he afraid to speak his own mind, his career be damned. That probably is the core reason why Cash spoke to people in all walks of life. From the inmates in San Quentin, where he recorded arguably his best album, to the mighty politicians who loved having him over for dinner. What his boom-chicka-boom music lacked in sophistication his words and the way his voice carried them revealed a complexity few artists are able to carry in their body of work. Don't take Cash for his word, nobody did it better than him, not even Springsteen.

Recommended listening:

Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar
The first singles on Sun collected. Includes many of his biggest hits like "I Walk The Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues". Cash would be chasing the sound and simplicity of these singles for the rest of his career.

Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian)
With this album Cash would be the first big Country star that would speak for the American Indian. He lays bare the trials of the Indian in modern times and the betrayals by the US government. An album that didn't sit well with his audience but is exemplary of his singular ways and refusal to compromise.

Orange Blossom Special
One of his most compelling studio albums at Columbia. Cash covers three Bob Dylan songs on this album. Embracing the protest generation as the natural continuation of the Folk movement before anybody else in Country music.

At San Quentin
Arguably the better of the two prison albums. At San Quentin strikes a perfect balance between his secular work and his gospels. At San Quentin Cash had a riot at his fingertips. The tension in this album is uncanny. It might even be the best live album ever recorded.

American Recordings
Recorded in Rick Rubin's living room. Cash acoustic and raw. Though initially intended as demos they proved to capture the essence of Cash like no studio album had done since his years at Sun records.

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