This essay is part of a series on country music as AARP salutes America.
Why do my father’s life and music have such a durable impact today? In the year he would have turned 90 years old, why is his image still so much in the minds and hearts of faithful fans worldwide?
Johnny Cash began making music in 1955 upon returning from West Germany after a three-year enlistment in the Air Force. His first records had a lasting impact on the whole of American music and culture. He was there for the foundation of rock ’n’ roll and became one of the top-selling country music artists of all time. He performed for millions during his more than 40-year traveling career, selling out shows from Western Australia to western Ohio, from Fairbanks to Singapore.
Celebrating Country Music
In all walks of life, music fans love his work. He sang songs of the ordinary person, sang of inner truth, songs that told stories, songs that told of his faith in God, love songs and story songs. Unlike some of his peers, he was the consummate poet and wrote much of his recorded music. But it is not only the music that still draws people to my father after all these years. It is his image, his allure and mystery. It is the paradoxes that made up who he was.
Dad was known for wearing black. My mother said he wore it to cover the truth that his clothes were dirty. Of course, there was more to it. His song “Man in Black” gives us a hint at some of his reasoning for such a shadowy image:
I wear the black for the poor and beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times …
Dad was a champion for those who could not or would not speak for themselves, those whose hardship was not in the public eye — the prisoners, the Native Americans, the farmers and the working people. I saw his selflessness many times. He gave with no thought of return and went the extra mile for those in need. He always kept an open eye for ways to help people. He was a father to innumerable people in so many ways, offering support and wisdom to those in need.
There are many outstanding artists and musicians whom people want to imitate. For instance, many would say, “If only I could write like Bob Dylan,” or “I want to sing like George Strait.” But aspiring entertainers want to be Johnny Cash. They want to be respected and instill a sense of awe in those who hear or see them perform. But this does not come easily, nor can it be achieved out of imitation. Dad was one of a kind, and his unique, captivating allure made him who he was. This originality is not something created by facsimile or parody.
He truly believed in what he said and what he stood for. He believed that his mission in life was to share his faith with those seeking an answer, and he never hesitated to identify as a Christian, even if it meant fewer album sales or not appearing “cool.” Yet the man could stand up onstage and sing a song like “Cocaine Blues,” igniting a flame of rebellion in the most sedate audience member, and follow up, not missing a beat, with “Peace in the Valley.”
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Dad still holds a place in the hearts of so many because he was real. On finding Johnny Cash, one peels back the first layer and finds something more. He had voluminous layers, leaving it nearly impossible to predict what you may find next.
Indeed, the world now is full of those who bare their personal lives to gain more attention for themselves, self-perpetuating rumors through social media and headlines. For most, this is driven by selfishness. Dad, too, was always willing to show his failures, where he had fallen short. But humble effacement was not for his selfish gain. He wrote about his sufferings with addiction, confessed to hurting even those he loved the most and how he could have lived his life better. He was willing to show his shortcomings so that he could help others, so that perhaps through seeing where such a powerful, successful person had made mistakes, others might avoid them. Again, he was authentic. His kindness led his path.
So, finally, his image and music remain valid because they mattered. He still touches us all with frank and heartfelt openness. Upon learning of my father’s life, many may find the courage and hope to find a way through their life struggles. Dad said that the most significant legacy he could hope to leave behind was that of a good father. I find great joy in believing that the wisdom his life lent may be found and applied by many who seek his fatherly guidance. In this way, the measure of his life is not wanting.
John Carter Cash, 52, is a singer-songwriter and producer. He is the only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Johnny Cash was born in 1932 and died in 2003.