Saturday, February 26, 2011

Johnny Cash: "Did you start this fire?"

In country music history John R. Cash's life and music are as monumental as the craggy features that glared out of countless albums and photos that now form his legacy. It's as if he grew into the role out of the life he led, without much pretense to the whims of record charts and a music industry that seemed somehow indifferent to his career. Record labels didn't know how to "package" his careening personality fueled by drugs and alcohol as he banged from rockabilly to country to gospel on his way to becoming, simply as he had been all along, The Man in Black.

But his life story always made good copy in the press, and along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash really created the outlaw image in country music. Elvis broke the rules under the watchful eye of Col. Parker, but in real life Cash trashed them without anyone's help at every turn. His fifty-year career proved you can become your own monument, if you live long enough to tell the tales. And though Jerry Lee may now be "The Last Man Standing" out of a million-dollar-quartet, Johnny Cash was the baddest of them all.

His Harper Collins autobiography, simply titled
Cash, is a train-jumper of a life story and the reader is advised to hang on from the start:
I remember Daddy telling me about a time when he'd been riding the rods -- clinging to the crossbars under a moving boxcar, a terribly dangerous way of riding unobserved. When the train stopped in Pine Bluff and he crawled out, he found a railroad detective standing right there. He suffered a beating and a cussing-out, which he just had to stand there and take if he didn't want jail or worse. But when the train started moving again and the detective began moving away as the caboose came by, Daddy jumped on and hung there, cursing that railroad bull until he was out of sight. He laughed about that; he got in a few licks of his own and he got to ride in style out from under those boxcars.
That same bull, by the way, picked on another hobo a while later. It wasn't his lucky day; the hobo pulled a gun and shot him dead. My name is John R. Cash. I was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. ...
Cash's battles with booze and pills and powders are stuff of legend (and movies too), but what may be surprising are the difficulties he faced after his particular style of religious conversion got him into trouble: "When I spoke out I simply made my statement. I never said, 'You need what I've got because you're wrong and I'm right' and after I declared myself I didn't set out to prove myself: I didn't start acting any differently ... There was never any dividing line between Johnny Cash the Christian and plain old Johnny Cash."

He wasn't always this self-effacing. "Did you start this fire?" Cash is asked after one early incident that left the woods ablaze. Full of "amphetamines and arrogance," he's not willing to cooperate: "No. My truck did and it's dead, so you can't question it." The judge goes on: "Do you feel bad about what you did?" Cash: "Well, I feel pretty good
right now."

The popularity of the Carter and Cash family name is stronger than ever, thanks to the efforts of many musicians who have revived the tradition and kept it alive. The music of succeeding family members themselves has shown an amazing versatility: Johnny and June Carter Cash, Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash, as well as the members of the Carter Family III, have all carried on in the family tradition, and each with a unique approach.

The Winding Stream documentary -- its name is taken from a song written by A.P. Carter in 1930 -- traces this history not just for country music fans but for a wider audience, who may not recognize the Carters' impact on folk and rock music as well. Carter Family songs have been covered in an array of styles from Dylan to Jeff Buckley, The Black Crowes to John Lee Hooker.

The Winding Stream 90-minute documentary being produced by Beth Harrington is still in need of money to complete the project. In January a successful Kickstarter benefit went a good way to raise funding. The Winding Stream website includes current updates on the documentary as well a link where contributions can be made through Paypal or by mail to the fiscal sponsor, Center for Independent Documentary, 680 South Main Street. Sharon, MA 02067.

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