Johnny Cash, RIP

Johnny Cash has died, aged 71.

“When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns,
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die:
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.”

I started listening to Johnny Cash about five years ago, starting with the Man in Black compilation, and there are now a dozen Cash CDs in my collection; and the older I get and the more I listen to his songs, the more excellent and important a musician he always seems to me to be, for all kinds of reasons.There’s the remarkably harmonious fusion in his music of a surprising number of American traditions — country, rock’n’roll, gospel, folk, a bit of blues — in a career stretching from the million-dollar quartet of the 1950s (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash) through to the new millennium; there’s the combination of his own excellent songwriting (“Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, “I Still Miss Someone”), with marvellous covers of songs by his contemporaries (Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”, Kris Kristoferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”), with older American classics (“Wreck of the Old ’97”, “Cocaine Blues”, “The Great Speckled Bird”, and so on). It adds up to a body of work which treats of the most important, most difficult subjects of them all — love, God, murder, prison — with immense humanity, most remarkably displayed on Johnny Cash At San Quentin, the finest live recording I possess. And he could be very funny, too, and not just on “A Boy Named Sue”.

He had been ill for a while, though the longstanding diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease later turned out, as I recall, to have been mistaken (it was just a surprisingly long hangover, or something); his most recent album (American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around) was alarmingly poor, its recordings of “Danny Boy” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” showing that he’d lost the plot a bit; his darling companion June Carter Cash died earlier this year: this seems to be a good time for this life to draw to a close.

But what a life — and what fantastic music.

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