When I was a little kid the newspapers would always print notable birthdays, deaths, and world events of the day. It would always intrigue me. I guess, thinking back, that is why I always do the daily Music History section for Innocent Words.
February 26 was always a date of interest because that was my date of birth. Every year I would make it a point to check to see who was listed—Levi Strauss, not bad, I love a good pair of jeans; John Harvey Kellogg, I do love a good bowl of Frosted Flakes; Tex Avery, you can’t beat a good cartoon; and Jackie Gleason, how could you go wrong with Sheriff Buford T. Justice? However, I had rock & roll dreams in my eyes. Some of the musicians born on the same day as me were Fats Domino, an R&B/blues legend (that was pretty cool); Michael Bolton, a white man with a mullet who ripped off R&B hits of the 1950s and 60s (that wasn’t so cool); and the man in black, Johnny Cash.
I knew of Johnny Cash from his television shows my parents used to watch and the weekend road trips we would take as a family. Dad and Mom would let us listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 but after that, they would tune in to the local country station. As a child of the 1970s and 80s it seemed like torture because I was into rock & roll; specifically, hard rock and metal music. I was hoping for Dokken, Poison, or at the very least, Journey. Instead, I got an earful of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Don Williams, and yes, Johnny Cash. For one reason or another, Cash stuck with me—this was the guy who I shared a birthday with, after all, but truth be told, that’s as far as it went.
As I grew older, and ahem, “wiser,” working in independent CD stores and sinking myself into music history of all kinds, I always had Cash in the back of my mind. When he released ‘Unchained’ in 1996, the dam burst open and there was no plugging it. Hearing Cash cover Soundgraden’s “Rusty Cage” just blew my mind—after all, this was the 1990s, aka “the grunge years.” Then when I heard him sing Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” I stopped dead in my tracks while working and just listened.
I don’t know if it was those two songs that brought me to Johnny Cash or they triggered some kind of childhood memory of riding in the back of the car with my parents listening to him on the radio, but something just clicked inside me that I can’t explain.
I immersed myself in Johnny Cash music, making up for decades that I missed, buying CD after CD after CD. Soon I had amassed quite the collection. There’s no way I could collect or afford the massive catalog of Cash albums, but I have enough to make me happy. I do favor the ‘Love, God, Murder,’ ‘Unearthed’ ‘Live From Folsom Prison’ box sets. Several years back, every February 26, I would break out these albums and listen to Cash all day to honor him, but it was more than just the music for me.
Whatever I say here has probably been said a thousand times over by far more important people than me, and there’s no way my words can convey the love and respect I have for Johnny Cash. As I learned more about the man, not just the musician, I saw a lot of myself in him. Maybe it was a Pisces thing, maybe I am just being foolish, who knows? I think, well, I know, I love Johnny Cash more for the person he was than the music he made. Here’s a guy who came from the fields without a penny to his name, served his country, worked his ass off, and followed his dreams. He struggled with life, death, love, drugs, and depression, but he didn’t quit. When he “made it,” he didn’t forget where he came from, and he fought for those who had it rough, namely people in prisons. And what he did to support the Native American people alone should earn him the respect of every American. I could go on and on with his back story, his accomplishments, his failures, but those stories have been documented time and time again.
As I was a kid listening to Johnny Cash in the backseat of that 1970s Chevette on family road trips, I had heroes—Jimi Hendrix and George Lynch (Dokken) because they did things on the guitar that were so amazing and foreign to me. I wanted to be them. Now that I am older I have different heroes. Three of them, to be more precise: Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Cash, and my grandfather. My grandfather was the greatest man I ever knew. Looking back, I see a lot of Cash in him because he was a man who fought to help those who needed it in our small town. He put others first and he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. I never knew or met Cash or Lincoln for that matter (obviously) but I’d like to think they were the same way.
Now, another year has passed. I still listen to Cash regularly, especially on February 26, but I’ve started listening to his daughter Rosanne’s music too. Not because she’s Johnny’s daughter, but because she put out one of the best albums I’ve heard in years with 2014’s ‘The River and the Thread.’ Now I am going back and buying up her back catalog, much like I did with her father’s 20 years ago. And like with her father, the more I learn, the more I have a deep respect for Rosanne Cash. She’s a talented writer, not just of music, she stands firmly for causes she believes in, and she’s really funny.
On this February 26, I will turn another year older, and play Johnny Cash records with love and respect for a man I never knew, but love dearly.
It’s facetious, the power of music.