Southern Culture on the Skids

A new autobiography tells how Johnny Cash has walked the line for a disappearing country--and how that line may end with him.

In 1971, Johnny Cash, a child of the Depression and son of a Dyess, Arkansas, subsistence farmer, released a record called Man in Black. In one of the grandest bits of self-mythologizing in all of American pop culture, he transformed the black garb that was already a trademark into a symbol of a burden he personally bore for all of society's ills, aligning himself with the poor, the "lonely" old, convicts and junkies, and soldiers dying in Vietnam. Refracted through an already established outlaw persona, it undoubtedly was (and still is) a deliciously outlandish statement, conjuring images of John Wayne gone progressive, of Tom Joad with chaps and a six-gun.

A quarter-century later, a new generation, aided by the artistic instincts and marketing savvy of American Records honcho Rick Rubin, has latched onto Cash's aura, and a new autobiography, Cash (Harper San Francisco, 1997), offers a peek through the seams of this mythology.

Consistent with this mission, in the first few paragraphs of Cash the venerable Man in Black recounts a little family history. Cash's great-grandfather, Reuben Cash, came from Georgia where he fought for the Confederacy and survived the Civil War. After his home was destroyed by Sherman's troops, he moved his family to the Arkansas side of the Mississippi delta, where his son, William Henry Cash, Johnny Cash's grandfather, grew up a farmer and itinerant preacher. William Henry Cash died in 1912, age 52, of Parkinson's Disease.

This last is the unintended punch line, I suppose, since this book was written (as near as I can tell) well before Cash himself was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and before that disease and a fairly serious case of pneumonia landed him in a Nashville hospital. As for the rest, those elements--a sense of place, a legacy of defeat, an emphasis on family and religion, and a life of working the land--are the central themes that run through Cash's life and work. They are, along with a tragic racial history, the fabric of a rural Southern culture that for the most part no longer exists, but which conceived a body of music that stands among America's greatest cultural achievements.

However much people today may equate white Southern rural culture with political conservatism, Cash's connection with that culture jibes perfectly with his progressive allegiances. As a child, Cash's family obtained their farm through a New Deal program that Cash, in the book, proudly calls socialism. And his populism and class-consciousness are instinctive, a natural outgrowth of his early experiences on that Arkansas farm.

Musically, Cash again bends preconceptions or easy classification: Though the artist is the only person inducted in both the rock & roll and country-music halls of fame, he's really a folk singer of the pre-coffeehouse variety--a product of an oral tradition that seems to have lost currency in these soundbite- and soundscape-oriented times.

Cash is now, along with his friend and occasional collaborator Bob Dylan (whose own recent health problems and popular resurgence mirror Cash's), the most visible protector of a kind of residual culture. Dylan has become the world's most famous musicologist of late, resurrecting ancient blues and folk songs, producing an outstanding tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers, and playing at least some part in the CD release of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Cash has always been an old-fashioned troubadour. Beck and Chris Cornell--both newfangled practitioners of words + guitar--may have garnered the ink when Cash covered their tunes on last year's Unchained, but his real gift is for rescuing half-forgotten country gems like "Sea of Heartbreak" and "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" from the dustbin of history. In the midst of much-hyped emergent forms, Cash and Dylan are living embodiments of that supposedly endangered species, the song.

The difference between the two men, however, is that Dylan mostly learned about this stuff the same way you and I did, through records and books, while Cash is one of the last living and still-relevant musical products of the culture. While his cohorts at Sun--Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins--helped instigate the dawn of modernity in American popular music, Cash was, and still is, distinctively pre-modern. He follows Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams in a lineage of country/folk giants who emerged from the pre-rock & roll, white South and whose music embodies that heritage. Through four decades of modern and postmodern upheaval, Cash has walked the line for that disappearing culture, and the line ends with him. In his book, Cash (with co-writer and veteran Country Music magazine columnist Patrick Carr) laments its passing:

I was talking with a friend of mine about this the other day: that country life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being 'country,' they don't mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates, they're talking more about choices--a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own. Which begs a question: Is there anything behind the symbols of modern 'country,' or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pick-up trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that's left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life?

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