It’s not just his iconic, cut-to-the-bone voice, or his ability to mix so many musical genres–country, folk, rock, roots music–and make it seem effortless. My connection is personal, too. When I was growing up, Johnny Cash was one of the few things my mother and I could agree on. My mother was very conservative in many ways, including her music (she really didn’t even like music all that much, but that’s another story.) But she loved Johnny Cash. He had a weekly television show when I was little, and I think my mother and I watched every episode.
I remember mom telling me, “Johnny’s got guts. He’s had a hard life but he turned himself around. And he’s been to prison.” Mother would always mention prison when she mentioned Johnny.
I think about this, because I’m re-reading Johnny Cash: The Life, Robert Hilburn’s excellent biography. As much as I love books, I rarely re-read them. But something told me to pick this one up again, and I’m glad I did. It makes me think about how much my mother loved the myth of Johnny Cash as much as she loved him.
You may ask what I mean by that. The book clearly points out that Cash had a lifelong propensity for making up stories. One of the biggest myths about Cash was that he was an ex-convict. That wasn’t exactly true. He was, of course, famous for his prison concerts and for his live album from Folsom Prison. And he had been arrested a few times when he was heavily into drugs and alcohol. Even then, he was always bailed out. Still, the way he presented himself, you’d think he spent years behind bars.
Johnny didn’t live in a time when mental illness treatment was common. Still, I’m pretty sure he had some form of mental illness. Throughout his life, he battled drug and alcohol addictions. I’m certainly no psychiatrist, but God knows I’ve seen psychiatrists. Every one of them has told me that, if you really look at the reasons many people cling to drugs and alcohol, mental illness of some kind often comes up right below the surface.
So, even though he’s not an official member of my tribe, I’m making Johnny a posthumous honorary member. And somehow, his habit of making up stories makes me connect with him even more. Cash was a storyteller–in his songs and in his life. He was a creative loner who loved to tell good stories–truth be damned. He wanted to entertain. And boy, did he ever.
At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to show his pain. That was clearly demonstrated in one of the last–and best–songs he ever did: his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.
If my mother fell for one of Cash’s myths, there was also a poignant truth that I think she connected with whenever Johnny sang. My mother had a very hard life. I certainly haven’t had it easy, either. Johnny sang especially for people like us. He didn’t just sing his songs. He felt his songs.
Like Johnny, my mother is no longer on this earth. I’m not sure I believe in a heaven. But I like to think that in some eternal way, she still listens to the Man in Black. I know I always will.