He looks almost stately now. In current photographs, his image gives off the intensity of a hellfire backwoods preacher. The slightly graying hair is combed back and still riding pompadoured and high atop the face of crags and fissures and the eyes that look like they've done a lot of worrying. Which they have, as their owner has led a hard life. Decades of drug addiction, illness, encounters with the law, a broken marriage, career swings.
But from a troubled life can occasionally come artistic greatness, and few can lay more honest claim to the experience than this man.
Hello, it's Johnny Cash.
If American music has a true living legend, it is the Man in Black. Born in the middle of the Depression on a dying cotton farm in the upper-right corner of Arkansas, Cash and his music have become nearly mythological. From the haggard strength of his looks to the rumbling heap of his speak/sing baritone to his law-busting temperament to his love of God, Cash is the hero of Everyman. He sings for the downtrodden, the overworked, the underpaid, the imprisoned. He sings for those pursued by demons. And when you hear that low-down voice, as vulnerable as it is terrifying, carry over the simple acoustic guitar, you know Johnny's Been There, too.
His recording career began at a time and a place that have become so legendary as to seem fictitious. It was in 1955 that he recorded the hits "Hey Porter" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" for Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis; Cash's label mates were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
There have been 129 albums since that first single. The vast majority of those recordings have been steps forward in a career that is still evolving. (Of course, there have also been questionable offerings like The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me.) Cash is a member of the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame, and he has seven Grammys on the shelf; his latest release, the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, is an exercise in country/folk minimalism. Already hailed as a classic, it is simply voice and guitar, recorded in Rubin's living room and in Cash's cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to stark effect. To bring his rep in 1995 into perspective, consider this simple quote from Rolling Stone magazine last year: "Can you name anybody in this day and age who is as cool as Johnny Cash?"
Probably not, and if "cool," at its rock-bottom, sexiest level, is a lot closer to sinner than to saint, then Cash qualifies, hands-down. Unlike some of his less fortunate contemporaries, lucky Johnny didn't overqualify. Despite years of trying, the man didn't overdose while sitting on the can, he didn't drive his car into oblivion, his talent didn't dry up and blow away. And Cash--always a person with deep religious beliefs--has in the last decade solidified his bond with the Lord. Like one of his favorite religious figures, Saint Paul, who was converted on the road to Damascus from evil persecutor to God's personal amplifier, Cash once was lost but now is found--and is clean, sober and working steadily, at that. But, remember, it was all that wicked action from the dark side of the tracks that made the man who he is today. After all, he doesn't wear black just so stains won't show up. Johnny Cash is scheduled to perform on Sunday, January 8, at Graham Central Station. Showtime is 8 p.m.