I have a police mug shot of Johnny Cash being busted, near here, for crossing the Juarez bridge into the U.S. with a thousand uppers and downers. Pills. His mug is lean and haunted; “acrawl with nerves.” I feel close to the man in that photo. I’ve crossed that bridge one hundred times. Wired and lost, thinking of Johnny Cash. In the late ‘50’s my brother had that first Sun L.P. record: “The Hot and Blue Guitars of Johnny Cash,” and to me that was, and still is, IT. As punk as it is folk; savage blue country; gut-level Southern soul. American music. An Arkansas cotton farmer’s heart, pounding to Luther Perkins’ ragged, comb-toothed, boom-chick-a bass line. Thunder road music.
A decade later I snuck backstage at the Hollywood bowl and stood beside Cash as he waited for Bob Dylan to finish “Desolation Row,” that incredible beast of a song unfolding for the first time on stage. Cash and Dylan were defining nova-beat American folk music. Spin around a few more years and I was onstage singing with Johnny Cash in Switzerland; he whispered the lyrics to “Peace in the Valley” into my ear in front of 10,000 people… Christ, those Old Testament words about the “lion lying down with the lamb.” Chilling. Life changing. I’d had breakfast with him that morning and he promised me he would record my songs “Veteran’s Day,” and “Blue Wing.” He kept his promise.
“Blue Wing,” is still in the archives of those Rick Rubins' sessions, and it was those Rubin sessions which later brought Cash back to a younger, “alternative-country” audience, after Nashville had turned him out. How important is Johnny Cash to our culture? His face should be carved in granite next to Mount Rushmore, along with Hank Williams and Crazy Horse. He is our Black Moses. His voice defines an honesty which cuts to the heart of how human beings love and hate and hurt. That voice was not so much “beautiful,” as it was raw and truth-filled and in your face, with real poetic news that needed to be heard, swallowed, spit out and heard again.
I am honored to have known him, if just in a few passing hours on a two or three far distant stages. I still think of him when I cross that bridge, from Juarez to El Paso; walking that line between hell and heaven; dancing across the that tightrope between truth and oblivion –high above a river gone up in flames. Acrawl with nerves.