Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Man in Black

I just heard my favorite Johnny Cash song, Sunday Morning Coming Down, and it again reminded me that he is one of the greats of country music.
But I haven’t always felt that way. When I first began hearing his songs on the radio, I was a rock & roll fan; country music was for hillbillies. I was not impressed.
That all changed the summer I turned sixteen.

Pitty and I were listening to the radio and washing dishes, jitterbugging to Little Richard and snapping each other with dish towels, when we were interrupted by the DJ. “I’m gonna spin a record that just came out, and it’s sung by Johnny Cash,” he said, “Here we go, guys and gals, Ballad of a Teenage Queen!"

We were still horsing around and giggling when a deep, soulful voice stopped me in my tracks. It was different, and magical (for a dreamy 16-year-old like me, anyway). I was hooked.

I soon learned all the words to the song, singing along with Johnny day after day that summer, and by the time it hit number one on the charts, I was the teenage queen. When I saw him on television he was staring straight at me, those dark eyes piercing mine; each word he sang, he was singing to me. I had always been attracted to boys who were dark and mysterious, boys who appeared as if they had something to hide. Well, Johnny Cash was a man, and he looked as if he had a lot to hide!

Pitty and I saved our allowances and purchased the record at the Ben Franklin in Bardwell. Maw Maw Wilson had bought a portable record player to play gospel records, and one afternoon we talked her into letting us play Ballad of a Teenage Queen. We played it over and over, cranking it up as loud as it would go, singing along at the top of our lungs. Maw Maw was hard of hearing, but even she couldn’t take that. “Brenda! Patsy! Could y’all turn that down? They can hear it all the way to Georgie’s house!”

Fast-forward a decade or so. During those years I was caught up in the Beadles, Simon & Garfunckel, the Motown sound. Although I had long ago gotten over my school-girl crush, I still played Johnny’s records. Suzanne loved Walk the Line and often sang along, twirling around and around the living room, clapping her tiny hands to the beat of the Tennessee Three.

When Johnny’s prime time television show debuted, we never missed it. He always ended each show with a religious song, and the year I lost both of my grandmothers I sobbed through Precious Memories. After I lost two of my brothers two years apart, both of whom were musicians and loved to sing Daddy Sang Bass, Johnny sang that very song one night when I was numb with grief. It was salve to my wounded soul

Shortly thereafter, we drove to the University of Illinois in Champaign to see Johnny in concert. In person, he looked bigger than life. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he said, and the audience of thousands went wild. Standing straight and tall in black, his guitar slung low on his back, he was a formidable--almost evangelical--presence. And he put on a wonderful show.

In the late seventies, Johnny recorded Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down. And it is still one of my all-time favorites. Although his lesser-known, I Still Miss Someone, comes close.

In May, 2003, as Bill and I were vacationing in Nashville, I turned on the TV in our motel room. There was Johnny Cash at the funeral of his beloved wife. Johnny looked 95 instead of 71, and, as always, dressed in black. Stone-faced and dignified, he sat ramrod straight in his wheelchair, obviously wishing he could join June. And a few months later, on September 12, he did.
Johnny Cash's songs, with their stark reality, truth and compassion, will never cease to touch me, and I think many people will be listening to them for years and years to come.
I know I will.


C.S. said...

I love Johnny Cash's songs; his voice is one-of-a-kind. I've read his autobiographies as well, and truly liked the movie of his life a few years ago. I learned so much about June in that movie, and realized just how much inspiration and influence she had on his life and music. Both were exceptional individuals, talented and unique.

Suzanne said...

I loved reading this tribute. Johnny was one-of-a-kind.

Michelle H. said...

I admit it. I am a Johnny Cash fan. Whenever I hear Folsom Prison Blues on the radio, I always start singing along with it.

Rhonda Hartis Smith said...

I love Johnny Cash, as a matter of fact my husband used to call me Rhonda Cash because I wore black all the time (LOL).

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley