Why the Man in Black is selling records again

Jamie Howison on the success of Johnny Cash

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nce again, the legendary Johnny Cash is selling records. Some three years after his death, there is a new album in the Rick Rubin-produced “American Recordings” series, and as has been the case with its four predecessors, this one is making serious waves with a generation of listeners many of whose parents weren’t even born when Cash first arrived on the scene way back in the mid-1950’s. Rolling Stone, that iconic magazine of the world of pop culture, gave American V: A Hundred Highways a solid four out of five stars, describing it as “a hard record to bear,” and then adding “but it’s a deep one.” “A deathbed benediction” the reviewer called it, and this is meant to be high praise and a solid recommendation to potential buyers.

How odd, especially when one scans the ads in that same magazine; you would imagine that this must be a youth culture fashioned around designer jeans, trendy perfumes and the very latest in technological gear. The recording of a man wrestling with issues of life and death, barely able to walk much less sing – that same reviewer called Cash’s voice “a ruined instrument” – would seem the antithesis of what we might assume drives popular youth culture. But make no mistake; it is predominantly young listeners who are picking up on this one, as has been the case with the whole “American Recordings” series. Their parents will likely remember the tidied up version of the man in black from his oh so domesticated TV show of the 1970’s, and they probably have more than a little trouble connecting the dots from that image to this… to this what?

For my money, it is American IV: The Man Comes Around that really nails what is going on here. Like the other albums in the series, it is a stark and spare record, marked by minimalist production values and an honesty of voice that is hard to match. Recorded during the year before Cash’s wife June Carter died, it has the feel of a man growing old and asking the hard questions about mortality and life-meaning, yet it is still buffered by June’s solid presence in the artist’s life. She is the anchor – “a soft, fluffy Mama Bear” he calls her in the liner notes – that allows him to search and stretch without ever quite reaching the breaking point. His search is clearly visible on the opening two tracks of that album: the title track, which he penned, and his extraordinary cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”

Of “The Man Comes Around,” Cash comments in the liner notes that “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote.” Drawn largely from the biblical book of Revelation, the song is a kind of litany of apocalyptic imagery, calling for readiness and preparation in the face of impending crisis and judgment. It is, no doubt, a song Cash wrote for himself as he contemplated his own mortal demise, but it is also a wake-up call to all who care to listen: put your house – your life – in order, for if this reading of the signs of the times is even close, there isn’t much mileage left in this battered human project. Even in his more conventional gospel recordings, including the posthumous My Mother’s Hymn Book, Cash never sounded so much like the preacher.

Up against this comes “Hurt,” with its agonizing opening lines, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel/ I focused on the pain; the only thing that’s real.” A song of such self-absorbed bleakness as to be almost unspeakable, in Cash’s hands it becomes a confession of deep fragmentation and brokenness. The preacher is also a sinner; the man justified by grace is yet one who wrestles in the darkness with his own deep wounds. Cash was never ashamed to draw on the evangelical language of sin, salvation and redemption to describe his long walk back from the abyss of addiction, but he was also never one to rest too easily in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called “cheap grace.” Saved, yes, but always a justified sinner limping along life’s highway by grace, and by grace alone.

It is something about that confessional honesty that appeals to his newest audience. They’ll even forgive him some of his more questionable song choices (does anyone really need yet another cover of “Danny Boy?”) for the sake of that authentic, gritty and honest voice.

It might strike some of us as being a remarkable thing that this spare, imperfect and, yes, ruined voice has such appeal. It should strike us as rather ironic that the same decade that has witnessed this renewed interest in a stripped-down version of the man in black has also found so many church communities plugging in the worship bands and firing up the power-point projectors. Maybe it is time that those of us entrusted with the task of speaking truth into culture paid a little more attention. Maybe, just maybe, it with a spare and authentic voice that truth is best sought and heard.

Jamie Howison


 

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