Monday, March 21, 2005

Johnny Cash, Overrated?

I want to posit an argument that has been on my mind for some time. Is Johnny Cash one of the most overrated musicians of the last 10 years? Let me hedge here a bit. I like Cash a lot. I think his early recordings (before about 1965) are generally quite good. "I Walk The Line", "Big River", "Hey Porter"--all great songs. His first recording for American is a classic, one of the greatest country-folk albums ever produced. His second recording for American is also very solid as are a few songs off the last two albums.

That said, I see the near-mythology that surrounds the Man in Black with discomfort. First of all, the period between 1965 and 1992 is almost all garbage. Just absolute crap. There are a few decent albums and good songs in there. But for the most part it's unlistenable. But hey, that's only a mere 27 years of Cash's career. What is that?

Compare Cash with Ray Charles. Both were outstanding artists who pushed the boundaries of music. If anything though, Charles took a lot more risks than Cash. Here was a R&B artist doing a country album for example. And doing it damned well. Both were crazier than shit on a personal level. Yet when Cash dies he is lauded as a rebel, a man who did it his own way, an outlaw. When Charles dies he is seen as a musician for old people who sang "America the Beautiful." He is seen as great but in a very older, upper-middle class white kind of way.

Why is this? I believe that there are a couple of reasons. For one thing, Rick Rubin. Rubin did a hell of producing job for Cash, helped him pick out good covers (something that Cash by himself was horrible at--he covered Skynard's "They Call Me The Breeze" for Christ's sake), and promoted him as the myth that he is seen today. I don't blame Rubin at all. He took a great artist and made him great, and more importantly, relevant again. God bless him for it. Same with Jack White for what he did for Loretta Lynn. Ray Charles never had that producer. He never had that late-career album that made him relevant again. Maybe that's because he didn't want to go in that direction, I don't know. But without that first American album, Cash is seen a very different light today.

Second, and I hate to say this, is image. The whole Man in Black thing not only led to a myth about Cash but overwhelmed many of aspects of his music, particularly his sappy and Christian sides, which are about as far from rebelling against the system as you can get.

I guess my question is not whether or not Cash is great. The question is, is he greater than Haggard? Waylon? Willie? I don't really think so. Yet even Waylon, who was at least as crazy as Cash, has not been mythologized like Cash.

Maybe the reason that I care about this issue is that I am never comfortable with mythology in any of its forms. This is one of the biggest reasons I went into history. I want to destroy myths. In this case, I want us to judge people like Johnny Cash on the basis of his music and his music alone. No Man in Black crap. No issues of rebellion. Let's just judge him on what he was--a great country singer.