Today would have marked the 81st birthday of the late, great Mr. Johnny Cash, a monumental day as his presence is still alive and well on this earth. Some claim him as country, others call him rock n’ roll, but music lovers would agree to categorize this kind of talent and spirit is doing a disservice to Johnny Cash- as well as to music and yourself- as he transcends all categories with his rebellious nature and unique musical styling. In laments terms, Mr. Cash broke the mold, and will forever be remembered as one of our own: a husband, father, prisoner, deviant, heathen, repentant, creator, or simply a man trying his best to be bad in a good world (flip that, if you prefer.) All of the above and more only begin to describe what this prolific figure lived through and shared with us in his music. His discography reminds us that sounding distinctive was not a negative- a lesson Bob Dylan would reaffirm the next decade- that commercial success did not mean immunity to personal demons, and that the rewards of thinking for one’s self will always be more personally gratifying- though not necessarily lucrative- than falling in line.
Always present, from family road trips- in heavy rotation with Willie and the rest of The Highwaymen- to the wine drenched settling in of our new place, Johnny Cash was destined to be a part of my life’s diverse musical soundtrack. My husband and I still unabashedly belt out the first line of the beloved Carter/Cash collaboration “Jackson” with gusto, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout…,” and though our young marriage still holds that feverish tone, I can picture us decades from now, holding hands, speeding into Jackson town, singing it from the experienced perspective of Mr. and Mrs. Johnny Cash.
As an ode to my father, a cooler man than he will ever admit and the one who introduced me to Johnny Cash (long before the masses rediscovered him via Joaquin Phoenix), my husband, another lifelong “man in black” fan and kindred rebel spirit in his own right, and my friends, because nobody loves the anti-authoritarian Cash quite like free thinking, punk rockers, here are some lessons learned from the legendary life and music of the late Mr. Johnny Cash.
You can dance with the wicked without joining their ranks
It was neither his constant struggle with substance abuse nor his devout Christian faith that made Johnny Cash unique to his audience- though either may make him more relatable- it was watching his fall from grace that made him lovable, because it was a fall he both relished and condemned, time after time. No being is absolutely good or absolutely bad, so allow yourself and those around you to make mistakes and seek redemption however they deem fit. Life is too short for absolutes.
Personal style defines us, like it or not
“I wore black because I liked it… It’s still my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.” Johnny Cash, regarding his wardrobe color of choice.
Why do your wear what you wear? It doesn’t have to make a statement of this magnitude, but dress with intention, and you will see results.
Love is forever, marry the right one, and marriage will be too
June and Johnny seemed destined to be, but they struggled to reach each others arms. Both were married when they met, and Johnny was very opened about how painful it was to not be with one he was meant for, resulting in years of fighting and disappointments, (and albeit some good song making, pain inspires great art, but I digress) not to mention the damage done to their respective families. Ultimately, they would become inseparable, with Johnny departing from this earth four months after June had. Don’t find yourself obligated to the wrong person when the right one enters your life, because when you do meet them, every moment is sacred and cannot be spared. Don’t settle for less than “meant to be” love- the kind of love that adds sparkle and excitement to the most humdrum of things- anything less is lackluster and futile.
Follow your heart
From “his man in black” somberness against the flashy country music scene to his intriguing professional marriage to Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash embraced his own evolution and it paid off. Poem turned hit song, “Boy Named Sue,” his infamous live album “Live at Folsom Prison,” and the cover of NIN’s song “Hurt,” -which Trent Reznor has compared to losing his girlfriend, as the song is no longer his- are all proof of a path improved by taking chances and making your own way. See Johnny Cash’s final video, epitaph, and last look here, still makes me cry every time.
Johnny Cash, singer, songwriter, author, and all around bad-ass, will be an inspiration for years to come, thanks not only to his successes but also in the way he built on his failures. Your decades in creating music and representing the disillusioned will be forever cherished and appreciated, Mr. J.R. Cash.