On that chilly Saturday morning, a not quite thirty-six year old guitar player seeking a comeback moment sat on a hack of a folding chair in the green room before taking the stage to a standing room only crowd and reminisced about his path to that point. Fifty years later, a not quite forty-six year old hack of a guitar player sits on a well-worn couch three time zones east doing the same minus the comeback bit.
In 1953, a young Air Force staff sergeant stationed in Landsberg, Germany, watched a prison movie with his 12th Radio Squadron buddies that in my mind forever altered the course of popular music. That might be a little dramatic, but for me I would’ve never acknowledged or accepted Steve Earle, Old 97s, Robert Earl Keen, Dwight Yoakam etc. etc. ad naseum had that moment not occurred and spawned what came after. Perhaps they would’ve never had the whatever it took for them to be whoever they were as well. Perchance, had that random movie night passed without him there, this musical world I know would be appreciably different and less than.
His name was J.R. but the military didn’t accept initials as a first name so he changed his name to John R...John R. Cash. After signing with Sun Records in 1955 he adopted the stage name Johnny Cash, the pride of Dyess, Arkansas – The Man in Black himself...Johnny motherf@#$&ing Cash. At that moment in time, the die had been cast so to speak whether anyone knew it or not. John would go on to complete his volunteer service, move back to Texas then on to Memphis, meet Sam Phillips, sign with Sun Records, make bank, become famous, tour with The Carter Family, meet and way later marry Mother Maybelle’s striking daughter June, have a string of hits, succumb to addiction, miss or half-ass years of shows, stumble, fall, burn 508 acres of forested land, get sued by the federal government, get arrested in Starkvegas for picking flowers on private property; in El Paso for smuggling 688 Dexedrine tabs, attempt suicide and likely hundreds of other things I’ve never heard about nor can confirm as truth. What is true is that he never once served a single day in actual prison. He chose a path whether knowingly or not and followed it to the end and you have to admire and envy that. I don’t think I’m writing a history lesson so you can fill in whatever blanks I’ve left. Truthfully, I’m not sure anything I’ve written to this point is fact or fiction or simple myth because of who and what he became. I’m certain that it doesn’t matter either way.
That green room I mentioned earlier was once the “hanging room”. That sold out show was the first of two that day at Folsom Prison on 13 January, 1968. His band, the perpetually locked-in Tennessee Three backed him perfectly. The fifteen songs recorded over the next five hours during two exhausting sets would become “Live at Folsom Prison”, possibly the most iconic American record for dudes like me of the last fifty years. What you don’t know, even if you know all of that is that Governor Ronald Reagan stopped by to wish the band well the Friday before since they were staying at the same El Rancho Motel in Sacramento. You likely don’t know that Carl Perkins and then the Statler Brothers opened up for him that morning either or that he sang a song one of the inmates he was singing to had written.
Yes, it’s cliché for “dudes like me” to claim an allegiance to Cash thanks in no small part to his lucrative and embarrassing relationship with Rick Rubin in the mid-90’s. In 1994, Rubin recorded John’s eighty-first album sparking yet another resurgence in his popularity. Perhaps it was his association with literally the coolest producer alive in Rick Rubin or that he became chummy with Trent Reznor that would allow aging yuppies and early hipsters and pissed-off metalheads and country music hardliners and pop radio junkies and everyone else the world over to finally and fully hear what the “man” was trying to say on the eighty previous albums. Perhaps, it was pure dumb luck. Perhaps, it was a global cultural awakening but I doubt it. Either way, the one thing I know to be true is that Johnny Cash matters – in a time in history where absolutely nothing seems to have any real or lasting significance, he still does. Cash is, does, will always matter. His music is, was, will always be important, clear, poignant, honest, real, relevant.
It’s an odd thing to say that something that happened more than my lifetime ago matters to me and my actual life now in any way other than superficially….affected me in a positive way ever, affects me still. Daily. I admittedly don’t listen to that record as much as I once did, but I will never forget the first time I heard it. Listening to it crystal clear digitally this morning doesn’t / couldn’t / will never compare to that first scratchy first time evening. I was fifteen or sixteen, maybe younger, maybe older – time has a way of distorting a memory, right?
What I know and remember beyond a shadow of a doubt is that it was my brother who put the needle on that particular record that particular night. As was often the case in my youth, he opened my eyes to a certain and specific different style of music that not only informed and transported me through my formative musical years but more importantly instilled in me a critical discretion of musical value that I maintain still. Half or more what’s on my constant loop wouldn’t be without my bro’s influence even though he’s probably heard of way less than half of it. Still, his implied direction gives me a touchstone to which I can compare all music to and evaluate it by. The Clash, Johnny Cash, The Godfathers, The Smithereens, Motley Crue, Ozzy and everything after…I could go on but the point is made. Introducing a music lover to good / new music is like breathing air into a drowning victim’s lungs. The hell of it is that he has no idea what influence he has had on me.
Fifty years after Folsom minus a few days, my brother’s house burned down. Quite literally to the ground, you know? There’s nothing left. He, his wife and first born barely made it out alive. There’s nothing left. Nothing. As emotionally connected to my actual soul as I believe that I am, I have no capacity for understanding that depth of loss. It / this isn’t about me in any way but I can’t comprehend this tragedy. I can’t reconcile my fervent belief in all that is good with this unimaginable act of devastation.
I’m not sure if it’s guilt in the purest sense, but I do feel guilty. Perhaps and I want to believe that this is true that it’s empathy disguised as guilt that I feel. Either way, I can’t help but feel almost ashamed for not having suffered a similar loss. My life, by any reasonable measure could not have turned out better – I’m on the exact path I chose once I decided to choose a path and there is zero reason to believe that I won’t continue to succeed…to have everything fall my way, you know?
It makes me question what is real…what really matters and what is truly irreplaceable. It’s only now occurred to me that the very Folsom Prison album I’ve been enamored with and obsessing about all day and night burned up in that fire that took everything away from my brother and his sweet family. Among other obvious important lost things, that might seem insignificant. It is. It’s not at the same time.
Fifty years after Folsom, life happens. Sometimes it’s a carnival – sometimes it’s a shit show. Either way, tomorrow will always be a better day. Thanks for reminding me J.R.