by Gene Owens
One day back in the early ‘70s, I sat in the cloister of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and talked with Walter P. Chrysler Jr.
He was a cultured man who had inherited wealth from his father’s automobile empire and had presented to the city of Norfolk an art collection then valued at upwards of $30 million. Chrysler told me about his first art buy: a Picasso purchased at the age of 14 with money saved from his allowance.
Surrounded by the works of some of the greatest artists of all time, the wealthy and cultured connoisseur named some of his favorite artists: Picasso and Renoir and Gauguin and Rembrandt.
“And I like Johnny Cash.”
The name stood out in a list of great masters like a Tennessee mule in a paddock of Thoroughbreds.
But a true connoisseur of equine flesh can appreciate a Tennessee mule for its own virtues, just as a true connoisseur of the arts can value Johnny Cash as a world-class artist in his own milieu.
I remember stepping into an elevator in East Berlin’s Palast Hotel in 1981, when the Cold War was still raging and communist officialdom regarded American culture as decadent.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Johnny’s music helped topple communism, but I will say this: The common folk of Eastern Europe loved the music and the culture that Johnny Cash represented more than anything communism offered.
There was a character to Johnny’s music that set him apart from the bespangled country singers who sob their cookie-cutter hits into the microphone.
“I Walk the Line” was always his signature song for me. I first heard it on my AM car radio as I drove the back roads between my job in Augusta, Ga., and my home near Aiken, S. C. The untutored voice, unpretentious and unadorned, grabbed you by the ear and by the heart. The accompaniment was a guitar thumping out solid but unobtrusive notes. You wouldn’t mistake Johnny Cash for anybody else.
Johnny connected with the hearts of working people:
“Some of us feel out of place with engine oil upon our face,” he sang in “Smoky Factory Blues.”
“Seems some of us were made for eating beans and picking things,” he sang in “When Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King.”
And the down and out found empathy in his raspy voice: “Morning found me lying on a floor in New Orleans,” he sang in “Cocaine Carolina,” “feelin’ like the patches were about to eat my jeans; feeling like my body was a warehouse for the blues...”
“On the park bench I slept on the raindrops keep falling on the newspapers covering me,” he sang in “Lonesome to the Bone.” The high times of last evening were “over with and gone,” and “the time for sweating poison out" was "just now coming round.”
You had the feeling that Johnny Cash had been there.
In his marriage to June Carter, he “kept the ends out for the ties that bind.” They bound him to the authentic roots of his music. He fit right in with the Carter clan, the founding family of country music.
June teamed with Johnny on the saucy ditty “Jackson,” in which she sang: “They’ll laugh at you in Jackson, and I’ll be dancin’ on a pony keg; they’ll lead you round like a scalded hound with your tail tucked between your legs.”
But June also joined him at San Quentin prison, where they wowed the inmates with “Darling Companion,” in which they pledged to each other, "As long as I've got a leg to stand on I'm gonna stand by you."
And they did.
I saw the Man in Black for the first time on a raw February day in 1988, on the rear platform of a train in Roanoke, Va. He was touring with a Tennessean named Al Gore Jr., who had launched a short-lived campaign for the presidency.
“The youthful presidential candidate did his best to warm up his audience with a stump speech that sounded as if it had been born in a Baptist pulpit,” I wrote in an editorial for the Roanoke Times & World-News. “And Johnny Cash gave them what they wanted with a poetic tribute to the flag and an in-the-flesh rendition of ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’”
Cash looked shrunken and old even then, but when somebody handed him a guitar, the familiar voice sprang from among the creases in his face like an echo out of a mountain hollow.
The editorial referred to Gore’s stockpile of campaign funds and commented, “If money doesn’t talk, at least Cash can sing.”
That he could. Johnny’s music was as much a work of art as anything in Walter Chrysler’s collection.
The South can be proud that he walked the line.