Friday, September 12, 2003

Johnny Cash died today, apparently of complications from diabetes, and with him has died one of the great traditions of American music: that brand of country music which wasn't about rhinestones and cowboy hats, but guns, booze, ruthless men and faithless women, the temptations of sin and the fear of damnation. He was the real thing, an honest to God believing fundamentalist Christian who knew what it was to fall from grace and survive to sing about it. His songs are caked with dirt, blood, spit, and fire. He sang about the love of women and the love of God, and the desperate loneliness of a life devoid of both. He belonged to the tradition of Hank Williams, maybe the greatest singer/songwriter America ever produced, and Cash, like Williams, could make a hit even out of even the most despairing lyric. No one, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan in his more lucid moments, is doing anything even close to this kind of work today. There is not merely a lack of skill but also, I think, a lack of courage. It takes guts to sing about things like God, death, and love, real love, not the shallow, hedonistic playground so popular in music today, but love terrifying and beautiful in its power. Cash wrote and sang of a dark world of elusive good and omnipresent evil, and the simple yet powerful faith that could transcend them both. He was a courageous voice in an often debased medium, we wont see one like him again for a good long while.


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