September 14, 2003

THE EMPATH:

Everyman, With a Voice: Johnny Cash provided a voice for the downtrodden, for lost
souls and lost causes that might otherwise have found no place in the American Dream. (PETER GURALNICK, 9/14/03, NY Times)

Only those who were there at the beginning can remember how different he really was. The records, when they first started coming out on the Sun label in 1955, in the immediate wake of Elvis Presley's success, sounded "so unusual," said the Sun session guitarist, Roland Janes, "that I never would have dreamed he could have even gotten a record played on the radio. But he set country music on its ear."

It was the voice that compelled attention from the start. It was a voice that the founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, compared to the blues singer Howlin' Wolf's in its uniqueness, the unimpeachable integrity and originality of its sound -- but it was the conviction behind the voice that allowed Johnny Cash to create a body of work as ambitious in its scope as it was homespun in its sound.

He carried that conviction with him from the time he first entered the tiny Sun studio in Memphis in the fall of 1954. He was just out of the Army, selling home appliances door to door, and playing with a trio of musicians barely conversant with their instruments: a guitarist who played one note at a time because he didn't know any other way to do it; a bass player who had just switched over from guitar and had not yet learned to tune his instrument; and a steel guitar player who would drop out of the picture altogether before they even made a record. They worked and worked until, after nearly six months, they finally came up with something that reflected the honesty, originality, above all the kind of spontaneity and emotional truth (as opposed to technical, or even musical, perfection) that both Phillips and Cash particularly prized. This "low-tech" approach was the perfect vehicle, certainly, for the plain-spoken quality of Johnny Cash's message. But the method of delivery doesn't come close to explaining the majesty, or ambition, of his art.

To understand that, one has to factor in the power of imagination. [...]

Through imagination he possessed a gift for empathetic transference; unlike many artists he was able to take on other voices and make them his own. His music celebrated the power of the individual, but his emphasis on directness and simplicity made a complex, and sometimes contradictory, message accessible to all. His, as Sam Phillips once said, was the truest voice, because it was so irremediably his own -- but it was a universal voice, too, for the very way in which it incorporated a constant sense of striving and struggle, an irreducible awareness, and embrace, of the human stain.


Mr. Guralnick is our leading historian of popular music. While most will know of his recent Elvis bio, his social history of soul music is even better.

MORE:
-INTERVIEW: Johnny Cash: A Final Interview: The country legend offered his thoughts on life and music to TIME in July (Lev Grossman and Johnny Cash, September 14, 2003, TIME)

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2003 6:07 AM
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