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?

Questions of quality aside, however, so-called "alternative country," which fetishizes the authenticity that Cash certainly owns, would seem more guilty in this regard than the Music City professionals that Cash is admonishing. For all of the sparkling pick-up trucks and 100-gallon cowboy hats, Nashville really makes no attempt to disguise its embrace of upward mobility and suburban banality. As for alt. country: If there's a clearer case of a kind of music producing a way or life, rather than a way of life producing a kind of music, I haven't seen it.

Which is not to say that Cash's persona is entirely authentic, if that term still has any relevance in the realm of pop culture. Kris Kristofferson (the Rhodes scholar and '70s sex-symbol) once described Cash as "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," and there's plenty in Cash to dispel any romanticized notions of the Man in Black. As Cash reveals, philosophy had almost nothing to do with the namesake get-up of the Man in Black; instead, Cash and his first band, too broke to afford suits, wore black as the only matching color in everyone's closet. And the man who is justly famous for his live prison albums and convict songs, has, contrary to popular belief, never served a single day in jail.

As for Cash's connection to the common man--well, he's not in Arkansas any more. Much of Cash is written from Cinnamon Hill, a family estate in Jamaica (once owned by the family of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning), a well-fortified Third World vacation home that, in Cash's own words, has survived slave rebellions. Cash casually mentions breakfast being served by his "Jamaican staff," and some passages about Cinnamon Hill border on the ridiculous.

"The guards aren't family," writes the man "who wears black for the poor and beaten down/living in the hopeless, hungry side of town." "But I trust the private security company they work for. One call to their headquarters from the walkie-talkie I keep at my bedside, and we could have an army up here."

Not just could have, actually; after an admittedly fearsome-sounding robbery, it seems the Jamaican Prime Minister ordered fully armed units of the Jamaican Defense Force into the woods around the house until Cash and family returned to their safe North American home. The robbers, Cash later discovered, were hunted down and killed by the government. A bit of "unofficially sanctioned summary justice in the Third World" that Cash expresses great ambivalence about.

But perhaps now is not the time to quibble. For Cash, to his credit, owns up to any contradictions between the life he's led and the image he's cultivated. And though he wastes pages praising the talents of his kids and grandchildren, and offering his nonperceptions into the character of all of the presidents he's met, there is an extent to which Cash's legacy is one of a nation. In one fascinating passage, for instance, Cash recounts intercepting Russian Morse code in his days as an Air Force radio operator, and finding himself as the first American to learn of Stalin's death. And now, if accounts are accurate, Cash's road from the dirt of Dyess to the seclusion of Cinnamon Hill may itself be winding down.

Yet Cash leaves a recorded legacy without parallel, and a self-mythology that is bound to endure. And in Cash, the man who has long worn his own mourning clothes offers a darkly comic metaphor for the persistence of dead country legends in the funeral and cremation of singer Faron Young: "Just as the ashes emerged from the urn, at exactly the crucial moment, a sudden gust of wind came up and blew them back into the yard toward the mourners. There they were with Faron on their faces, Faron on their coats, Faron on their shoes, Faron in their hair. Later, when I came home and got in my car, I found I had Faron on my windshield, too. I turned the wipers on. There he went, back and forth, back and forth, until he was all gone."

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