I thought about recusing myself from writing about Johnny Cash. I didn't "grow up" with him; I don't own all the old vinyl; I never saw his TV show, and he wasn't first on my list of "famous men I'd sing with if I were really famous." I do put on a CD called Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and San Quentin when I'm doing dishes; there's something about hearing Johnny sing like he does, about hearing the inmates cheer and jeer, about hearing the warden call out prisoner number thus-and-such, something that makes me simultaneously glad to be doing domestic chores and also glad to count myself amongst those who get to sing to other people.
I do remember exactly where I was when I found out he'd died. I was in a hotel room in Atlanta. We'd played the night before, gotten a little drunk, and my drummer Ray Duffey had taken a bet about how long it would take him to climb the 47 flights to the top of the downtown Marriot Marquis (4 minutes, 29 seconds). We don't usually stay in such swanky digs. We'd just discovered Priceline. And so there was a USA Today under the door. Front page news, Johnny was dead. Of course we all imagined he'd follow June directly--it was just a matter of time, and not much of that.
So we scanned the radio dial all the way to Birmingham. I wish I knew the station so I could thank them. For a solid hour, until we drove out of their signal, there was nothing but Cash. Ray wanted to hear "One Piece At a Time," and he called on his brand new cell phone; the song kicked in before he could hang up. When "Jackson" came on, I suggested we try to learn it in the van and play it that night. It wasn't long, though, when nobody knew all the words or all the chords, before I decided that the very worst thing I could do on the evening of Johnny's demise was to play one of his songs half-assed. He might've slopped up his songs a time or two, but I damn sure wouldn't. So we just decided we'd all wear black--be the band in black--dedicate an already-written, well-rehearsed love song to Johnny and June, and play the best show we could to his memory. Ray didn't have a black shirt, but someone gave him one when we asked at the local record store.
But this all started with me saying I have no business writing about Cash, and that's still the truth. I grew up in the 70's without "popular" music. My Dad has said: "If Elvis Presley is the King of rock 'n' roll, then I hate rock 'n' roll." And since Elvis (maybe to Johnny's chagrin) was, indeed, the King, I grew up without him, without Johnny, without "country" music, without several generations' worth of radio and records. I'd never call myself deprived, of course. I grew up with Bach, Vivaldi, Biber, Brahms, Beethoven, Glen Gould, Alfred Deller, The Chieftans, Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Bill Monroe, and Woody Guthrie. That's a short list, and I think the end of it is important, because it might've included Cash, but it didn't. We never got there. And when I think about how I acted out Doc Watson's songs (in costume), and how I imagined myself one of the dustbowl girls Guthrie sang about, and how we, as a family, sang and played instruments, I imagine that as a child I might really have danced to Johnny Cash singing about trains and Jesus and the Green Green Grass of Home. I would've gotten it. And Mom and Dad would've gotten it, too--if we'd have been looking for it. But we weren't, and we missed it, missed him.
But now I can say I miss him. I've had a lucky life since childhood. I've had the great fortune to continue to live in the world of music, and to keep on listening and learning and knowing and loving. I sing songs with a woman who said on the phone just tonight, "I wanted Johnny Cash to be my Dad and my boyfriend." I play in a band who all eagerly agreed to wear black, even if they had to go shopping or begging, because Johnny Cash was dead. I married a man who can sing all the words to every Cash song recorded before 1980, and, just around the house, we'll sometimes sing them together. I sat around two nights ago and drank beers with a close friend who told me "Johnny Cash is the rock" just after he got bad news about his mother's already failing health.
And now I've sat down and memorized all the words to "Jackson," and still know better than to play it out, because it's been done the best it can be, and I've heard it.