Fade to black

Chris Baldwin is a freelance writer and frequent contibutor to the CN&R.

As I write this, the jubilant shouts of a thousand criminals fill my living room. Suddenly, above the motley din booms an unmistakable bass baritone accompanied by the “boom-chikka-boom” two-beat of the Tennessee Three. Johnny Cash is launching into a tune with sobering, sermon-like authority—"Folsom Prison Blues,” live from the prison in 1968.

“Well, I hear that train a-comin …” he begins, and the prisoners surrounding him go wild. “I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.” Woos—off the meter.

On Sept. 12, just months after the death of his wife June Carter Cash, the legendary “Man in Black” died at 71 of complications from diabetes in a hospital in Nashville, leaving behind an incredibly influential, almost singular effect on the history of popular music throughout his 50-year-plus career. It was a long, hard ride that began in the roots of rockabilly, continued through country and gospel and ended with artistic interpretations of lesser-known modern songwriters (Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness,” for one), while enduring the pain and tribulation of amphetamine addiction, a failed first marriage and the grind of constant touring.

Arguably the most famous voice in the history of country music (with respect to Hank Williams), Cash grew up picking cotton and singing in the fields of Kingsland, Ark., where at 12 years old he lost his 14-year-old brother to an electric saw accident—a fateful event that would have a profound affect on the young boy’s music sensibilities. Cash’s lyrics always seemed to return to mainstay themes of death, drugs and isolation—and the songs kept coming.

Cash was a deeply spiritual man at heart, and his everyman appeal was that his tempered, “Death-in-waiting” voice was rooted in unshakeable faith. Cash sounded like he believed every word he sang—the heart and soul of country music in its most distilled form.

Author of such classics as “I Walk the Line,” “Country Boy” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Cash has been called an original old-school gangsta and admired by everyone from punk rockers to hip-hoppers, from Snoop Dogg to Bob Dylan. Cash was recently nominated for an MTV video award alongside the flavor-of-the-month likes of 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake—an amazing feat for any elder statesman, and one that surely signaled his coming demise.

Johnny Cash’s voice has now passed into history, to be found only in old, dusty record collections, cracked greatest-hits CDs, trite Behind-the-Music television specials and, most important, the dusty bars and juke joints of rural America. Dubya should make himself useful and issue a decree: Henceforth, every American jukebox is required to have at least one Johnny Cash song on it.