This morning I was listening to an NPR
interview with Johnny Cash
about his career and new album entitled “The Man Comes Around
.” Overhearing, my boss peaked his head into my office to ask me what I was listening to. I told him that it was about Johnny Cash and he nodded politely, but couldn’t resist a smirk.
This was not unlike the time -- two years ago -- when we were in a Starbucks in New York. It was shortly after I’d first started working where I work, and we were in the city for a conference we were hosting at Columbia University. “Ring of Fire” came on the radio and both my boss and his deputy director burst out laughing.
”What’s so funny?” I asked. “I love Johnny Cash. He’s probably my favorite singer of all time.”
They at least had the decency to seem embarassed. “Well,” my boss said, “it just seems weird that they’d be playing country music in a Starbucks in Manhattan.”
The whole conversation infuriated me. I don’t pretend to be a country music fan -- the genre on the whole, particularly new country, is definitely not for me. But Johnny Cash is another thing altogether. His music transcends genre -- it crosses the lines of folk, country, rock, blues, and gospel. His voice is a fabulous rich instrument, and the older he gets the more just the sound of it conveys a lifetime of pain and loss and love and happiness and faith. Cash is an iconic, almost historical figure. He matters as much if not more than Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Elvis and other pop culture icons. Where his contemporaries are all dead or retired, Johnny Cash continues to put out records -- each one better than his last. To dismiss him is to dismiss the impact his work has had on countless others -- from the glossy New Country pop acts to Nick Cave, Will Oldham, not to mention Neil Gaiman’s fashion sense.
My boss isn’t a bad guy, but he’s definitely in the category of champagne liberals who have always been the bane of my existence. It’s very hard for me to stick up for the American left, when much of its membership includes people who are just as reactionary and narrow-minded about American culture as their right-wing counterparts. These are people who obsessively collect obscure jazz records, but who look down at anything with a little “country” in it. I can appreciate the work of greats like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, why can’t these people who pride themselves on their sympathy for the American underclass extend their interest to poor whites? Why does country music -- traditional country embodied by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, etc., not new country -- have such a stigma, especially given its rich links to the blues? It’s a paradox I’ll never quite grasp.
What angered me the most was that I was having a genuine emotional response (a rarity when it comes to today’s media) to the interview when he poked his head into my office. Because Cash’s speaking voice sounded so rickety -- you could tell just how elderly and worn out he is. Soon we won’t have him anymore -- and when we lose him, we’ll lose something genuinely great. This is a man who shared the stage with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Carter Family. He wrote some of the greatest songs of all time, many of them about the day-to-day struggles of poor people. He’s here now, but his time is short. Johnny Cash means so much to me that I can’t help but feel grief about that. And to have someone judge him -- and condescend me about being a fan -- irks me beyond my ability to describe it.
I’m going to go out and get his new record as soon as I have the chance and play it loud in my office all day long. I find great comfort in knowing that I plan on doing this -- and that maybe, just maybe, I’ll irritate my boss as much as he irritates me with his endless playing of “The Girl from Ipanema.” I’m practically salivating at the prospect.