OCTOBER 23, 2020
MY GRANDMOTHER TELLS a story about me and Johnny Cash. She was working as a receptionist at a bank off of I-65, just north of Nashville. She’d taken me to the office with her one morning, letting me restock the countertop pens and peppermints, when Cash came in to make a deposit.
I was a painfully shy kid, so as Cash approached, I took cover the one place I could find, behind my grandmother’s pant leg, shoulders slumping, face turning red. Cash bent down to eye level. We were standing near the brick entryway.
“And who is this young squire?” he asked.
My grandmother nudged me forward. “Go on, boy,” she said. “Tell Mr. Cash your name.”
I wouldn’t say it.
“Go on,” she repeated. “Tell him what to call you, now.”
But still I wouldn’t say.
Cash tousled my hair a little and then got on with his business. He was a regular at the bank. In the summers during high school and college, my mother worked there, too. Once, she’d been helping Johnny and June with their safety deposit box when the heavy door latched shut behind them, locking them inside. From inside the vault, she’d had to call security. It took longer than it should have to get out. In a line that became a running joke between them, Cash said she’d have made a bad bank robber.
The one my grandmother tells ends like this: a few minutes later, Cash walked back across the lobby, waving. The wooden doors shut behind him and, as the doors shut, right at that very moment, as if forced from my mouth by the heavy sound, I finally said my name.
I have never known quite what to make of that story, which is a non-story really, except for the fact that it involves Johnny Cash. If nothing else, it highlights the way Cash loomed over my childhood. I may not have taken the chance to give him my name, but I cannot recall a time when I didn’t know his.
Cash. A single, steadying syllable, a buoy in a breaker, a banister on the ledge. In everyday usage the word meant hard money, and, to be sure, Cash did give off an air of reckless abundance, but he equally projected strength, integrity. You could count on Cash. He had never not been there. He was a landmark, fixed and orienting, more like Rose Hill or Old Hickory Lake than the old men in corner offices at my grandmother’s bank. When you heard Cash’s name, or said it, you felt a mix of intimidation, safety, and intrigue. The name preceded and superseded its namesake, such that when you saw Cash in person, in the shape of a person, and realized that he was, in fact, a person, the encounter didn’t quite register, at least not in real time.
In middle school, I had a friend named Cecilia who lived a few houses down from Cash, in Hendersonville. Cecilia’s father was big in insurance. Word had it they had a roller-skating rink in their basement. One Saturday afternoon before a school dance, a group of us met at the house to pose for pictures with our dates. Before long, we had secured a football, shed our rented tuxedo jackets, and, to the disdain of our mothers, commenced an impromptu game of two-hand touch. Up the driveway and into the street we spilled, handing off and lateralling, a Hail Mary pass overshooting its target, the ball skittering, side somersaulting, and coming to wobbly rest against the farther curb.
At some point, we were alerted to the approach of a vehicle. We turned. Coming toward us was a long black Cadillac, for which we cleared a haphazard path. Once the car had gone through, headed for the gated driveway at the bend in the road, we flailed into its wake, eager to get in as many downs as possible before the dance. Only later would the thought set in, “That was Johnny Cash.”
Despite the ubiquity of his name in the hills north of Nashville, the man himself remained something of a cipher. His nearness created distance, his legend an obscuring fog. At some point, I assumed, never consciously, that I knew just about all there was to know about him and so, in truth, knew very little.
I remember a revelatory conversation with my mother the summer before my senior year of high school. At the time I was reading Kafka, listening to Ghostface Killah, and renting whatever foreign films I could find at the Blockbuster by the Piggly Wiggly on Gallatin Road. I had started wearing lots of black, even to church, and my parents, whose summer wardrobe consisted of various shades of khaki and white, were concerned.
After a couple of Sundays, my mother had had enough. She sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me what was wrong. Was I doing drugs? Was I depressed? It was summertime — wasn’t I burning up?
“Johnny Cash wears black,” I said. “Do you have a problem with him?” “Son,” she said, trying her hardest not to laugh, “you’re not Johnny Cash.” Cash dressed in black, she told me, to make a statement. He was drawing attention to the plight of poor folks, Vietnam vets, Native Americans, prisoners. What, she asked, was motivating my fashion choices?
I didn’t have an answer, I wasn’t sure I needed one, but I caught her meaning: there was more to Cash than I realized.
Whatever the length and substance of my familiarity with Cash’s persona, of this I am certain: I was acquainted with his music first, even if I didn’t know the music was his. In the mornings, my grandfather, as he readied himself for work, sung snatches of country songs. He was my first radio. He sang about walking the floor and the moon being blue. He sang about trains, about hoeing hard rows, about whiskey glasses and cheating hearts.
His voice was low and tremulous. Like the course of his razor, like the swoop of his comb, his singing was a gesture of habit, auto-piloted, almost incantatory. Garbled and askew while he rinsed his false teeth, it became clearer, louder, like some far-off radio station wheedling into range, as he gummed the choppers into place.
He sang choruses mostly. He’d hum vague verses until he landed at familiar lines. “Oh lonesome me.” “Oh my darling, Clementine.” “Always late with your kisses, why oh why do you want to do me this way.” His half-possession of these songs, and theirs of him, had the effect of turning his whole routine into a kind of melody even as it hitched the music firmly to the palpable, making it as real and mundane and every bit as practical as his plastic comb and the back pocket he dropped it into.
The songs trailed him from the bathroom into the kitchen and through the kitchen onto the back porch where he toed into boots and hit the screen door to make his way across the long yard and into the barnyard noise of latches, gates, pitchforks, and buckets.
Of all the songs he sang, Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass” had the most purchase. “I remember when I was a lad,” it started, “times were hard and things were bad.” And so they had been. My grandfather had grown up in Eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression. In his rendition, the song sounded less like a monster hit (“Daddy Sang Bass” stayed atop the Billboard country chart for six weeks in 1968) than a private reverie, maybe even a prayer.
“Daddy Sang Bass,” at heart, is a song about survival. Grappling with the loss of his brother, the narrator finds succor in memories from a childhood that, for all of its hardship (“just poor people, that’s all we were / trying to make a living off of black land earth”) was leavened by music. “Daddy sang bass,” the chorus goes,
Mama sang tenor
Me and little brother
Would join right in there
Singing seems to help a troubled soul
The last line is saving. The word “seems” manages to ransom the lyrics from pure nostalgia by conceding music’s inability to totally redeem impoverishment and loss. Music, it says, can’t ever really do anything but seem, but for as long as it plays, it makes seeming enough.
“Daddy Sang Bass” also offered a gloss on the history of country music. You expect the chorus to fade into a second verse. Instead, the song reaches back in time, roping into the mix, as if from out of nowhere, the hook from “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” — a song that Cash’s in-laws, the legendary Carter Family Singers, recorded in the 1930s, and which itself was an adaptation of a gospel song from the turn of the century.
“Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” was one of the first country hits. It quickly became a Grand Ole Opry standard. In the process, the unbroken “circle” became a metaphor for country music in general, so much so that when the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the Grand Ole Opry House on the outskirts of Nashville, a move that signified country music’s growing popularity, the stage featured a wooden circle salvaged from the old site.
The song’s inclusion in “Daddy Sang Bass” isn’t as arbitrary as it first appears. As the listener comes to realize, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” is the very song the narrator remembers singing with his family. In this way, “Daddy Sang Bass” testifies to that older song’s resonance, foregrounding its journey from Opry stage to radio waves to the living rooms and cars of a whole generation of listeners who possessed it, treasured it, like a shared understanding.
Musically, “Daddy Sang Bass” has more to do with Jerry Lee Lewis than Mother Maybelle. It was written by Cash’s old Sun Records protégé Carl Perkins. A central figure in Memphis rockabilly, Perkins composed, among other hits, Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” Lyrically, however, “Daddy Sang Bass” is unabashedly throwback. In this way, the song transports the past into the present, as indeed my grandfather did when he sang the words all those mornings ago.
He wasn’t much of a singer, but there never was a singer whose delight in the sound of his voice was more total. He took his razor, still dripping, for a microphone.
“Daddy sang bass,” he started.
“Mama sang tenor,” I answered.
Then together: “Singing seems to help a troubled soul.”
Here’s one I tell about Johnny Cash. I was in a bookstore perusing the magazine racks when one of the music rags caught my eye. The cover announced a list of the “greatest artists of all time.” I was, and I remain, a sucker for such lists, however ludicrous, so I dropped my backpack by the newsstand and flipped open the book.
There was Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. There was Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Madonna, The Rolling Stones. And, lo and behold, just a few pages in, there was Johnny Cash. Cash! The one who’d called me “young squire”? The one who lived down the street from Cecilia? I knew he was important, but I’d thought he was Nashville important, country-music important, important to my mother, important to my grandparents. I had not realized he mattered to people outside the circle. I had not realized how wide the circle really was.
It was 2003. I was a sophomore in college. I was living in a dorm room 500 miles from home. Cash’s album The Man Comes Around had just been released. Although several posthumous records would follow, it was the last album Cash would put out during his lifetime, the first I purchased with my own money. The Man Comes Around was essentially a collection of bone-stripped covers. Guided by rap-rock producer Rick Rubin, the songs were sundry and eccentric. In their cockeyed way, they filled out and contextualized Cash’s repertoire.
In “Sam Hall,” the belligerent English folk ballad (“I killed a man, they said, an’ I smashed in his head”), I sensed the spark for Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (“But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”). Likewise, Cash’s sober version of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” felt like a pilgrimage back to the source. Other songs Cash transmogrified. Depeche Mode’s sensual “Personal Jesus,” in Cash’s handling, sounded less like a sexual entreaty than an altar call.
Even more miraculously, Cash managed to turn Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” a jagged number about heroin addiction, into the last will and testament of an aging superstar. The original, as performed by Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor, was either a plea for help or a suicide note. Reznor’s antic whisper in the dark was full of fear and self-loathing. Cash’s version was wisdom literature, the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”) interpreted by a Southern Lear.
Cash was declining in health, that much was clear. Once an elegant wail, his voice was ragged now, unrefined, and yet you sensed something urgent and essential in his delivery, however much it hurt. There was a searching quality to his singing. It was the musical equivalent of Rembrandt’s late painting of the blind Simeon holding the newborn Christ. Cash’s rough voice, like Rembrandt’s shaky brush, possessed a fresh confidence in vulnerability. It moved like a chisel feeling old stone for truer shapes.
Not long after I bought The Man Comes Around, my mother called and told me that Cash had passed away. She said it matter-of-factly, but I could tell she was upset. June had died a few months earlier. He hadn’t been the same since then, my mother said. “Still,” she continued, “I think deep down I thought he would never die.”
I knew what she was saying. This was two years after 9/11. Not since that day had I felt so disoriented. It was as if a fist had punched a hole in one of the world’s load-bearing walls. The sky seemed to sag. The rope tying me to home, already fraying by that point, ripped a little and twisted. It was as if Rose Hill had slid into Old Hickory Lake.
The Man Comes Around ends with an irreverent cover of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” the World War II–era ballad: “We’ll meet again / don’t know where / don’t know when / but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” The sunny day, in Lynn’s starry-eyed take, is the armistice. In Cash’s version, however, the sunny day is the song itself.
Cash is accompanied by what the liner notes call “the whole Cash gang.” June is there and so are the younger generations, the children, the grandchildren, and it’s hard not to hear in their unvarnished chorale the fulfillment of the promises laid out in “Daddy Sang Bass.” “I know we’ll meet again,” they sing, the dead and the still-living, if not in harmony, in unison. Translation: “No, the circle won’t be broken, by and by, Lord, by and by.”