Thursday, August 20, 2020

Johnny Cash: Love, God, Murder

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was one of the voices surrounding my cradle. In a small home in Varna, New York, would have been my dad, mom, and sister, and a baritone voice from an 8-track tape player singing about heady topics which I would learn to understand in the years to come. My musical interests expanded beyond country to rock, classical, and my go to favorite jazz. But even today, that deep voice and those songs still capture my attention, and before he died, Johnny Cash gifted us with a compilation titled Love, God, Murder (2000) with liner notes by Bono, Quentin Tarantino, and Johnny's lovely wife, June Carter Cash.

The "Murder" collection of songs has been playing on my Bose nonstop for weeks, whether I'm tinkering with a poem, editing a crime story for the BEAT to a PULP webzine, or riding the killing trail with Cash Laramie, who, yes, I partly named after Johnny. Inspirations abound. Take a song like "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," about a young man named Billy Joe who wants to be respected and rides into town with his guns hanging at his side. Hear that song just once and a movie begins playing out inside your head that could have been directed by John Ford. You see his mom crying over him and that dusty cowpoke laughing him down at the bar. It's not just a song but a narrative that gets into your ear and under your skin, and no matter how much you don't want Billy to make that fatal mistake to draw his pistols, he will again and again.

Another classic, "Delia's Gone," is about an unfaithful wife who's killed by the narrator. Unlike "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," there is no sympathetic protagonist, rather a jealous husband who appears to gleefully enjoy the path he takes—Cash was never afraid to go there in what Tarantino calls hillbilly thug life. I especially relish this particular compilation for the various points of view, whether from people witnessing a president's assassination in "Mister Garfield," a prisoner fantasizing about breaking out of Folsom prison, a man admitting to a murder to protect his best friend's wife from the shame of their affair, or an honest policeman allowing his criminal brother to get away "'cause a man who turns his back on his family ain't no good." That song, "Highway Patrolman," was written by Bruce Springsteen, and it has always impressed me how Cash could interpret other people's songs, slipping them into his own music book for a seamless listen. He's covered songs from a wide range of artists, from Hank Snow to Trent Reznor, with the ability to make them his own. How does he do it? I believe it's because his voice speaks with an authority that seems from The Almighty himself.

Any other Cash aficionados? What's your favorite song or album?


Alan said...

As a kid I remember Johnny Cash and many other country stars being on the radio on a regular basis. My Mum used to always have the radio on in the mornings (there was no day time television then, apart from programmes for schools), so the radio was there to break up the quiet. Many of his songs are part of that time, although I didn't really know who he was at the time - "Boy Named Sue" would probably be the one from that time that sticks the most.

David Cranmer said...

I recently played "A Boy Named Sue" for my daughter, for the first time, and she laughed as hard as I did all those years ago. Great memories. And thanks for sharing yours, Alan. And it did seem to me, that back then, the music had equal billing—or greater—to the television set.