On the morning I heard Johnny Cash had died, I was driving through a cold September rain, headed to sit at the bedside of my father, who was also dying. He would live less than a month past that Sept. 12.
Cash was one of three celebrity passings we chatted about as Dad’s health slowly declined. John Ritter and Warren Zevon were the others.
But it was Cash's music that had been in the background of more of our lives together, even though Cash was not a favorite of my father early on. A little ironic since he grew up in Ferriday, LA, which produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley (my father always pronounced it with a J sound the way he said the family always did) and Jimmy Swaggart.
My dad's musical tastes were more oriented toward Herb Alpert and Pete Fountain as well as an eclectic assortment of others, at least in my lifetime. Family legend had it that when he and my mother went on dates in the fifties he always played Hank Williams on road house juke boxes.
Cash was more a favorite of mine even in my pure Top 40 days; my tastes are eclectic as well. By default my dad heard a lot of him too.
That talking singer
My first awareness of Cash came in 1969 on The Johnny Cash Show. We watched, but Cash was perceived in our household as a performer for my generation or at least teens of those days; I was still pretty young in 1969.
I guess on the strength of A Boy Named Sue and a few other songs with Shel Silverstine lyrics, my dad always thought of Cash as "that talking singer." And he turned up here and there on our pop culture radar:
We went to see A Gunfight on a double bill with True Grit when the former came out in 1971. My dad was rooting for co-star Kirk Douglass in the showdown. (Some magazine of the time, that I read on one my mom’s beauty salon visits, reported that Cash demanded that saloon girl Karen Black be clothed in scenes with his character and that he went on strike until producers worked that out. Jane Alexander, Douglass' on screen wife did the bare-bottomed or "wrapped only in sheets" duty that still earned a GP raiting. It was GP in those days.)
I Walk the Line, starring Gregory Peck and featuring Cash's soundtrack tunes, aired frequently on network TV.
I had a greatest hits album in the '70s that seemed to support that "talking" notion with an inclusion of "Sue" and a few others, though I never owned "Johnny Cash The Singing Story Teller" which would have cemented it if "Ragged Old Flag" hadn't come along to finish the impression.
Cash's frequent appearances on Billy Graham Crusades probably earned him the most respect from my father.
Hurt as background
As my father died, Hurt became a significant background track with the video playing frequently on television during those days. As he sang the Nine Inch Nails lament of a heroine addict, the wizened Cash, ravaged by multiple diseases, seemed to embody all physical suffering as well as introspection and reminiscence.
I got American IV that Christmas along with Zevon's The Wind, both ironically suitable for mourning, retrospection and celebration of life.
What's on the Pod this week?
With Walk the Line in theaters and Cash on television, my playlist needed Cash tunes for this week. Songs from American IV are there and also "Ring of Fire" with those exuberant Mexican trumpets.
But I added perhaps the first song of Cash's that ever stuck with me - 25 Minutes. I heard him sing it on his show in 1969 and it lodged in my brain even though it was not repeated nearly as often as other tunes.
It's a sad song, the Silverstein lyrics often spoken instead of sung, recounting a prisoner's final "25 minutes" before the gallows.
Yet it takes me back to my childhood home and to sitting in the den with my family and to an uncle who postulated I could understand lyrics the adults could not because it was music of my era.
I added the Pearl Jam rendition of the tune as well because my tastes are still eclectic. It’s a little rawer and sprinkled with more profanity, but it emphasizes the universality of an ARTIST’S music.
Just found out Cash's "Ring of Fire" was featured on the 9/19/03 episode of This American Life. I'll be listening to that online when I get a chance. Found out about it on the Swaprocks blog.