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Storyteller captured the good and bad in man

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2003

I have a vivid memory of my first time hearing Johnny Cash's foghorn of a voice: I'm in my brother's bedroom, sneaking spins of his vinyl records.

I'm in the fifth or sixth grade. My older brother, an industrious neighborhood lawn mower, earns money enough to collect albums by the hot acts of the late 1970s: Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Kiss.

Why, I'll never know, but a well-worn copy of Cash's 1965 album Orange Blossom Special is in my brother's stack. Intrigued by the cover - a young Cash in work boots, denim shirt and hat is smoking a cigarette atop a train - I slip the big, black record onto the turntable.

The clappity clap percussion and the harmonica blasts sound like a locomotive. Then, Cash's baritone drops on me like an anchor:

Hey, look a-yonder comin'

Comin' down that railroad track

It's the Orange Blossom Special

Bringin' my baby back

So quaint: His lady friend is coming to him on a train, of all things! I think it is the most unsophisticated thing in the world. But Orange Blossom Special is the first time I've ever heard stories in music. AC/DC songs don't have narrative.

The second song, The Long Black Veil, scares the bejesus out of me. Cash is singing about murder. And, as far as my preadolescent mind can make out, infidelity. Did he just say he had been "in the arms of my best friend's wife?" By song three, It Ain't Me, Babe, in which Cash tells the lady that he's no good for her, I'm hooked. I've never heard a love song where a man is honest about being a louse. (It would be years before I learned Bob Dylan wrote the tune.)

I listen to the whole album, feeling as though I am experiencing something singularly American. Three of my grandparents were Italian. The fourth came to Ellis Island on a boat from Germany and spoke with a thick accent. Cash sings on the album about springtime in Alaska and I find myself feeling nostalgic for an America nobody in my family discussed.

By the time Cash sings All Of God's Children Ain't Free, I've figured out that the singer is something of a rebel. The album closes with the buoyant Amen, which confuses me.

With piano rolling and tambourine cracking by the end of the song, Cash is shouting, "Hallelujah!" Huh? This guy with a voice as deep as God's own - is he a good guy, or a bad guy?

Much has been written about Cash's impact on the younger generation. In 1994 Cash and famed producer Rick Rubin began a series of collaborations that had Cash recording songs by Beck, Nine Inch Nails, U2 and others.

Pundits have mused about the significance of the video for Cash's rendition of Hurt. In the video, Cash looks as craggy as a California Redwood tree as he and his wife, June Carter Cash, survey the remnants of a life together. The video is a gut-wrenching commentary on the impermanence of youth, fame and life itself.

When folks write about Cash, it's in the context of today's music. They talk about how Cash's murder ballads of the 1950s and '60s paved the way for Eminem's scary characters, and how Cash's ability to infiltrate the minds of misfits in Orleans Parish Prison and Going To Memphis influenced other songwriters.

Pat the pundits for recognizing the parallels, but listen: Johnny Cash is an American icon whether or not the MTV generation recognizes him as such.

Cash was a peerless storyteller. He was an artist with boundless empathy. He remained, to his dying day, prolific and engaged, influencing, encouraging, and inspiring countless people in their own creativity.

* * *

Patrick Carr, of Tampa, ghostwrote Cash: The Autobiography (1997). Carr was fascinated by the way Cash wrestled with the good and bad aspects of his personality. He saw Cash as a man who constantly struggled for his own salvation. Cash made no secret of his drug abuse, which his wife helped him overcome. He also considered himself a devout Christian, though others found that hypocritical. (Cash joined preacher Billy Graham on his crusades in the 1970s.)

When I talked to Carr, he talked a lot about Cash's sincerity. Carr understood Cash's ability to get into the minds of society's unsavory characters. That didn't make Cash a monster, Carr argued; it meant he was in tune with the human condition.

"He understands the wholeness of human nature," Carr said. "How great people can do base things."

This was how Cash could gobble amphetamines and kick out the lights at the Grand Ole Opry, and then beg Jesus Christ for forgiveness when the buzz wore off?

That's not hypocrisy, I thought. That's reality.

Johnny Cash never sang about monsters. He sang about real people. He sang with sincerity of his own sins. He was honest.

When I was a kid, in my brother's bedroom, sneaking - sneaking - through that stack of records, I learned a lot from Johnny Cash. I learned that America is made up of places called Colorado and Alaska, Florida and California, and trains run through them. That people can be angry with God one minute and sing his praises the next. That sometimes grownups lie because it's the right thing to do.

I needed to know back then if Johnny Cash was a good man or a bad man.

That makes me smile now. Things aren't black and white, I've learned.

The Man in Black, the "rebel" who grappled with his own salvation, was merely a man, and he knew exactly what that meant.

- To contact Gina Vivinetto e-mail gina@sptimes.com

To read the St. Petersburg Times' Aug. 28 article about Johnny Cash's nomination for an MTV Video Music Award, please see www.sptimes.com/johnnycash

Cash's songs

- Cry, Cry, Cry, 1955

- Folsom Prison Blues, 1956

- I Walk the Line, 1956

- Get Rhythm, 1956

- Next in Line, 1957

- Home of the Blues, 1957

- Give My Love to Rose, 1957

- Ballad of a Teenage Queen, 1958

- Big River, 1958

- Guess Things Happen That Way, 1958

- The Ways of a Woman in Love, 1958

- Don't Take Your Guns to Town, 1959

- I Got Stripes, 1959

- Five Feet High and Rising, 1959

- Tennessee Flat-Top Box, 1961

- Ring of Fire, 1963

- Understand Your Man, 1964

- The Ballad of Ira Hayes, 1964

- It Ain't Me, Babe, with June Carter, 1964

- Orange Blossom Special, 1965

- Jackson, with June Carter, 1967

- A Boy Named Sue, 1969

- If I Were a Carpenter, with June Carter Cash, 1970

- What is Truth, 1970

- Sunday Morning Coming Down, 1970

- Man in Black, 1971

- A Thing Called Love, 1972

- If I Had a Hammer, with June Carter Cash, 1972

- Ragged Old Flag, 1974

- One Piece at a Time, 1976

- There Ain't No Good Chain Gang, with Waylon Jennings, 1978

- I Will Rock and Roll With You, 1979

- (Ghost) Riders in the Sky, 1979

- Desperados Waiting for a Train, 1985

- Highwayman, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, 1985

- Unchained, 1997

- Solitary Man, 2000

- The Man Comes Around, 2002


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