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What Johnny Cash has taught me about honesty

May 9, 2011

There are days I just love listening to Johnny Cash.  Early, mid and late Cash music are all wonderful however, I am personally quite partial to his last works.  The album “American V” introduced me to Johnny Cash and has had me hooked on this tumultuous and phenomenal story teller ever since.  There is something about the gravelly voice, the honesty of his lyrics and the softer tone of the guitar music that carries the words and emotions in his pieces straight into my heart.

Honesty.  The quiet honesty of Johnny Cash’s late works pervade every song, every lyric and his very voice is saturated with it.  I have such admiration for someone who is so willing to embrace the challenges of aging, the realities of dying, and tell a whole new audience what it is like to look back on a life long lived–whether you are proud of it or not, whether you see mostly happy or sad memories, whether you have regrets or things left to say.  I listen to his works with a mix of empathy, awe and respect.

It’s been said that true artists put themselves into their work, that there is a vulnerability in making art and putting it out into the world.  For the most part, I have seen this played out in young artists, unsure of their footsteps, setting out in the world and still very much living in a state that fears rejection and pushes out bravado and drama to fend off those fears.  However, in Johnny Cash’s last works, I see an honesty that gives all of us a glimpse at a man’s life, his emotions, his regrets and most pivotally–his willingness to accept his life as his own and share it with others.

I won’t lie:  part of what draws me back again and again to his late music is the instrumentation.  I love the sound of acoustic guitar and the style he plays brings me back to moments of my childhood, listening to the phenomenal guitarists who would gather at my parents house to jam and of singing around the campfire on vacation.  I’m sure that’s part of why the music touches me so; but, I will offer that acoustic guitar creates the kind of musical composition where simplicity draws the audience and convey’s far more than a complicated multi-part piece would.

It is analogous to a lone dancer on a stage, a simple photograph of nature, the silent moments in a grand symphony, and visual art in it’s simplest and most beautiful forms.  It’s the kind of composition that takes strength to put forth because it leaves room for the audience to really hear the individual moments in the music.  To bring it back to the dance analogy:  when a lone dancer moves slowly on stage, she is taking a risk, she is taking the audience out of the moment of flash and sparkle and bringing their attention to the minutia, the emotions, the lines of her slow arching motion.  If the dancer dances well, this kind of performance is powerful beyond measure but if the dancer loses confidence or is afraid, it is easy to rush the piece and lose the flavor or to lose the strain of emotion in the piece and with it the audience’s attention.  Johnny Cash’s work finds this line and takes the daring move towards simplicity with utter success.  By bringing us into a world of simpler, straight forward instrumental music, he draws us, the audience in to his world, into his voice and music even further.

If you would like to catch a glimpse of this amazing man’s work, I would highly recommend “If you could read my mind,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “A Legend in My Time.”  All from American V.

In honor of Johnny Cash, I’ve found a poem I wrote a few months ago that fits with how I perceive his style of music and lyrics.  May we all be even half the human beings that he was by the end of our lives.  Reconciliation?  Honesty?  Acceptance?  Speaking our own truths?  You choose the reality that feels right to you.  Good luck!  You have my love!

The fires of rage

Will give way

To the waters of anger

And flood of sorrow

That truly fills the empty pits

But lo, that fire burns hot

To melt the ore

And form new pieces

Within me

And lo, once more

I see the water, the flood of sorrow

To wash away

The muck of old hurts,

Long lodged

Within me

And clear I shall be

And clear I shall move

Forward and away

From the darkness

Forward and towards

A new light

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