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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007

Remembering the Man in Black The country of Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash is the ultimate American popular music enigma. Never considered hip during his career until the 1990s, when recording with Rick Rubin commenced, he fell short of rockabilly cool and could not quite make it to outlaw status within country music. He never got to rock ’n’ roll.

At the Wisconsin State Fair in the ’70s, with members of the Carter Family and Carl Perkins, he played to a sparse, conservative crowd in the afternoon. Today, had he lived, the sold-out concert would be filled with alt-country youth at the Pabst.

Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash: The Biography (Da Capo) distinguishes itself as a portrayal of a man who was not ahead of his time, though he sure lived that way, but associated with those who were. Instead, he was perfectly in tune with mainstream country. He was the sturdy man in black who stood not by himself, but with all the others who stuck to American music with a persona that made them one of us with a little attitude.

Today’s country music is barely country at all, and so Cash is now outside the category. He is finally the outsider he never was because he made records that Rubin asked him to make within his own tradition, without all the big hats and dusters of any color. One wonders what would have happened if someone else had earlier made the same request.