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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jody Rosen takes on the Johnny Cash legend, but he doesn’t go as far Paul Hemphill went in his 1969 book The Nashville Sound. Not only has Cash’s rep always been a cornball myth, but he always had intonation problems too.

Let the record be set straight from the beginning: Johnny Cash is not a jailbird, a pillhead, a brawler, a murderer or even a bad boy. In the summer of ‘69, when his popularity had spilled over into the pop- and folk-music audiences, such a legend had grown up around him that it was too late for anybody to deny any of these things. His songs about prison and despair, sung in a flat, slightly off-key voice of doom, Cash wearing all black, Cash with human suffering in his deep eyes and on his tortured face, Cash insolent and lashing out from the stage, Cash in a black swallowtail coat and striped morning pants like an elegant undertaker, Cash swinging his guitar around and pointing it at his listeners as though it were a tommy gun, all of these things captured the whole world and made Johnny Cash of Dyess, Ark., the most charismatic figure in show business. “Johnny Cash?” people in New York were saying when ABC-TV announced “The Johnny Cash Show” as a prime-time summer replacement. “I thought he was dead from pills or something.” The kids on Harvard Square believed without question that Cash had done time at Folsom Prison for crimes ranging up to murder, and that his album recorded live from Folsom was the purest expresion of Artist-Saying-What-He-Knows, and they became irritated when advised it wasn’t necessarilty so. People wanted to believe the legend of Johnny Cash, and when there were no fresh Cash tales to repeat they made up new ones.

Myths die hard, in Rockville as anywhere. And Cash’s myth constitutes a lot of his appeal. None of this detracts from his musical and emotional power at his best. He had a rhythm and a roar that were uniquely his own; his dramatic sense was impeccable; he wrote some great songs and picked other great ones to sing.
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