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April 24, 2007

In Case You Missed It—April 24, 2007

When I tell people I’m from Indiana, I usually get two responses. First, they make some totally wacky comment about corn. But, just to set the record straight before I begin, we grow more soy than we do corn, so you can stop thinking you’re so clever for asking about our crops.

After that, they usually ask me if I like modern country music. I don’t. It is a horrible, talentless genre full of hacks who wave American flags and somehow get to lay claim to American culture. Kenny Chesney is what you get when you slap a cowboy hat on Lance Bass. He is the Backstreet Boys for white trash.

Modern country does nothing but ape the same old structures from other genres; it is rock ’n’ roll with a southern accent and a steel pedal. It has none of the power, fire, and soul of the old country greats. Merle Haggard did not sing about his feelings, he sang about drinking.

Johnny Cash did not sing rehashes of Beatles pop songs; he had his own distinct sound that captured American culture in a way that Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, and Toby Keith can’t even approach.

But today, the people who listen to country often listen to modern country’s poor excuses for talent. And furthermore, the people who don’t listen to country often discount the genre entirely as the music of hicks and rednecks.

Too few people these days listen to Johnny Cash, which is why I would like to take this week to draw attention to his work, which is a true example of the soulful melodies and wonderful emotions country music can evoke, in truly American style.

Cash’s early work showed a certain cynicism and dark humor that was rare in music at that time. I’ve always viewed Cash’s distinct baritone voice especially in his earlier work as both sad and fiery. In “San Quentin,” you can hear the sorrow of the prisoner and his dark rejection of the world for placing him in the San Quentin Prison.

But you can also hear a powerful tone of rebellion and guarded optimism in the lines that talk about the prison’s hopeful demise.

The heroes in Johnny Cash’s songs are not wild cowboys who love Texas, horses, and America; they are men and women who stand strong in the face of adversity, people who are careful, thoughtful, and tough without being cold. Almost everyone has heard at least one track from the album At Folsom Prison, especially after Walk the Line was released, but the album is worth buying in itself and it is easily the best of Cash’s early work.

I love Cash’s early work, don’t get me wrong, but some of my favorite songs are actually from some of his most recent albums, particularly the American albums.

When Cash recorded these albums, he was fast approaching death, and it’s a vast understatement to say that many of the songs have a very somber sound. But never, in all the music that I’ve listened to, have I heard songs more heartfelt, more affecting, or more powerful than Cash’s later works.

Many of the songs on the American albums are actually covers of various modern songs. But that says little about their power. When I saw Nine Inch Nails perform “Hurt” it was just another punk rock band singing about suicide and raging against something.

When Johnny Cash sang it for his music video version, I sat breathless, and at the end thought silently to myself, “Some day, I am going to die.”

Here was a man who had seen our country change from the 1950s to the 21st century. Here was a man who had overcome a heroin addiction, had hurt so many people, had written so many wonderful songs, and yet had little more than an empire of dirt to show for it. This wasn’t some rocker in his early 20s singing a song about suicide. Cash was looking back over 70 years of his life, and considering not only all that he had accomplished, but also all of his failures.

Cash’s later work isn’t just some songwriter writing a song about a story. Cash was singing about his entire life and compressing it into a few dozen songs. Very few, if any, artists these days have had such power and sadness behind their words.

Sure, country may traditionally be the music of hicks and rednecks, and it may also have a vein of uncultured roguishness. But if anything, Johnny Cash is almost enough to redeem the entire genre. Maybe. Though if Toby Keith releases another “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” there may be no hope.

That’s all for this week. I apologize for doing two short articles consecutively; hopefully we’ll be back to more than one work or artist next week.

As always, submissions or suggestions for future installments and comments on recent articles are appreciated. Just e-mail me at bmw940@uchicago.edu.