Johnny Cash: I still miss someone

Johnny Cash mural on a wall in Nashville“I’m not a saviour, and I’m not a saint
The man with the answers I certainly ain’t
I wouldn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong
I’m just a singer of songs”

…so sings Johnny Cash on A Singer Of Songs, a track from 2004’s mammoth Unearthed set. Stately, humble and moving – especially in the wake of what had happened just a few months prior to its release – it’s one of my favourite Cash performances, guaranteed to round out any compilation of the man’s work with a satisfying and emotive punch.

It was three years ago today that J.R. Cash upped and left this world, aged 71. Though he led a rocky life, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody that isn’t willing to at least doff their cap to the guy. Say the name Johnny Cash and you think of strength and dignity. His appeal spans generations and genres, and it’s not difficult to see why. Put the mild-mannered John Cash in the right environment and he became the Man in Black, a rebel with a cause. Part religious family man, part rock ‘n’ roll outlaw, Cash, and his music, is everything to everybody – and there’s absolutely no compromise on any side.

For me, Johnny Cash’s legend is best captured on the album At San Quentin, from 1969, the second of his celebrated prison albums. Cash doesn’t just peer at danger on this record; he opens the door wide and tells it to make itself at home. “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” he sings on the ‘title track’, a song he wrote for the occasion. “May your walls fall, and may I live to tell.”

The cons are so appreciative, whooping and hollering their delight at their prison being torn brick from brick in song, that Cash lubricates his throat (“If any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?”) and plays it again straight away. Listen carefully and you can hear officialdom’s sphincter tightening. Before long, though, the prisoners are laughing along with A Boy Named Sue and sitting rapt and contemplative at a clutch of gospel songs.

It’s a masterful performance on many levels, showing off the different sides of Cash the artist (and, I’d like to think, the man). The recording, always raw and alive no matter how many times I hear it, is so full of genuine reaction between crowd and performer that it’s a contender for my favourite live album of all time. If you’re going to spin just one record today, this would be a fine choice. But, really, choice is something you’re spoilt for.

Cash started his working life as a young child in the cotton fields of Arkansas, and as his latest album, American V: A Hundred Highways, proves, he was a grafter to the end.

He finished his 1997 autobiography with a simple statement of fact: “It’s about time for me to go to work, or if you like, go to play. That’s what we music gypsies call it, after all. I’ll put on my black shirt, buckle up the black belt on my black pants, tie my black shoes, pick up my black guitar, and go put on a show for the people in this town.”

In the words of another rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, go, Johnny, go.

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