Coming Down With Johnny Cash

“Sunday Morning Coming Down”


When my dad played Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” for me as a kid, I envisioned the singer’s Sunday morning as some sort of fog descending from the sky onto the city. I laughed along with my dad, who was laughing about having a beer for breakfast and another for dessert. I pretended I knew what was so funny about that. There were pictures of Cash on the CD cases we had, but I either didn’t like them or didn’t ever connect them to his music. Instead, Johnny Cash became a man in my head, a figment of my imagination. The image of my Johnny Cash, his foggy morning coming down onto his body as he walked around, stayed in my head for years. I saw it every time I listened to the song, before I got older and realized that maybe the morning wasn’t the one doing the coming down after all. I still envision the morning descending on the earth and the streets, but now I also see the fog of the come-down and the hangover surrounding Cash’s body in the mist as he walked. I see the outside cloud making its way into people’s heads as they “stumble down the stairs / to meet the day.” When I was young, I was the Sunday school kid Cash walked past after his breakfast beer. Here I am now, some 15 years later, head pounding just like his, wishing to the Lord that I was stoned. Johnny Cash isn’t just a musician to me—he formed the world as I see it.

Cash’s work is forever on the line, in his music and in his life. But he hasn’t always fascinated me. For a while, he was just another country music artist: he loved Jesus, America, and his wife. He liked to sing about guns, about freedom, about trains and sinners and grace and the farm. But there’s also something to him that transcends genre. He’s been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z are featured in one of his later music videos. My friends who didn’t grow up with a soundtrack of people like Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe have still managed to find Cash and love him. I’ve started to realize that these dichotomies might be both the source of his discography’s seemingly eternal relevance, as well as my fixation and fascination with him. His albums don’t fit together to make a cogent whole, and sometimes neither do verses within the same song. But somehow it works, and somehow I still continue to accept the contradictions.  


“I Walk the Line”


In high school, I became infatuated—with people in my life, celebrities, pieces of art—very easily. I would indulge myself in my fixations on the walk home from school, my head clouded with moments replaying over and over. Cash, at one point, was one of these fixations. He spoke to the obsessive nature of life and love better than almost anyone. “I Walk the Line” was an integral part of the soundtrack to my walk home, my breath catching with the depth of his voice on the first line. “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Cash wrote the song about his then-wife, Vivian Liberto, promising to be true to her while he was touring and she remained at home. He sings, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds / Because you’re mine / I walk the line.” The simple phrases are what had such an effect on me. After the song is released, Cash will meet his second wife, his proclaimed love of his life, June Carter, while on tour. Later, Liberto would divorce Cash and raise their children on her own. Even without knowing this, the way Cash sings evokes a sort of resignation to the possessiveness of love, almost a dire warning to both others and the object of his desire.




Johnny Cash’s most popular song on Apple Music is “Hurt.” It’s a cover of the Nine Inch Nails original, and Cash’s version is unexpectedly beautiful. A friend once told me that some people are made for just writing songs and some people are made for just singing them. He suggested that maybe Cash was one of the latter; the last five albums he recorded were, for the most part, covers or renditions of folk songs, and they revitalized his career. Maybe he can cover songs so well because he can be (and is) so many different people. “Hurt” seems like one of the more straightforward examples: one famous musician covers a famous band’s song. The band’s lead singer was skeptical at first but cried when he heard Cash’s “different, but every bit as pure” version of the song. His covers make me wonder about the songs he did write. In both the songs he covers and the songs he writes, he is contradictory: an outlaw and devoted husband, a sinner and a Christian, a lover and a prisoner. He transcends time periods and socioeconomic classes and identity. His music, at first glance, has almost nothing to do with his own life experiences. Whether it’s a song he wrote or not, it’s kind of like he’s singing covers of other people’s lives.


“Greystone Chapel (Live at Folsom Prison)”


At the end of Johnny Cash’s 1968 performance in the Folsom Prison in California, he announced that he was going to perform “Greystone Chapel” by Glen Sherley, a prisoner who was standing in the first row. The song hadn’t been recorded yet, but, unbeknownst to Sherley, a minister who worked in the prison had shown Cash the song. Later, after Sherley was released from prison, he made his own recording, which he begins by saying, “I’d like to try and do one for you now that some of you may have heard already, ‘cause the Man took it and made it his.’” It’s hard to tell whether Sherley is talking about the “Man in Black” (as people called Johnny Cash) or “the Man” as in the authorities with the power to oppress. Maybe Cash singing Sherley’s song about being in prison is exploiting the power he had as a famous musician who never spent more than one night in jail himself, or maybe the song deserved to be listened to and at the time Cash was the only one for the job. It’s difficult to say whether Cash’s use of the song was ultimately good for Sherley; after Sherley’s release, his career as a country music singer was inseparable from Cash’s. Cash eventually stopped allowing him to tour and perform with him because of his violent tendencies and threats. After that, Sherley died in a murder-suicide. Sherley’s song was a contribution to the canon of work (by himself and others) contemplating what it means to be imprisoned in America, what it means to be an outlaw, what it means to be bad, to be a sinner, to be an unfree man.

I’m not going to argue for the beauty of Cash’s version over Sherley’s. Both versions are live, but Cash’s is grand. Maybe it’s because June Carter, his new wife, is singing with him, and you can almost feel the love that exists between them. But there’s a yearning in the way Cash sings that I’m drawn to, and I can’t help but feel deeply.


“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”


 “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional folk song whose original writer is unknown. It’s been covered by artists across genres, but Cash’s rendition stands out. It’s ominous. It’s rhythm follows in the tradition of “Walk the Line” and “Ride This Train.” Cash’s version, however, stands apart from other renditions in its power and strength. Elvis’ cover, in comparison, seems almost juvenile next to Cash’s, whose somber interpretation is only strengthened by his voice, which is old, cracking, and fragile. He doesn’t attempt to hide his age. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is on one of the last albums Cash recorded, and over the course of the song, Cash seems to cross the line from life into death with the shift in narration. The song’s first verse begins in first person, implying that he himself is the narrator of the song. This narrator is testifying as to his own encounters with God, but in the second verse turns to warn others. Cash sings, “Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand / Workin' in the dark against your fellow man / But as sure as God made black and white / What's down in the dark will be brought to the light.” It’s as if he’s denouncing, warning, and judging the man he once so convincingly embodied, the man whose enticing outlaw aura is at the core of so much of his work, the man who he appeared to be just a verse before. But the shift from testimony to warning and judgement—from the one living to the one judging the lives of others—placed on his last album next to songs like “Further On Up the Road” and “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now.”


“Do Lord”


I had been singing “Do Lord” for as long as I can remember before I heard Cash’s version. For a long time, I believed that there were certain melodies that I was born knowing. I couldn’t conceive of a time in my life in which I did not know certain sequences of notes (some of them not even formal enough for me to consider them songs), and “Do Lord” was one of them. I remember telling this to a friend, maybe in middle school, to her great confusion. I said something along the lines of, “You know how there are those songs that you’ve just always known? Like, you never had to learn the words or the music or anything because they are just ingrained in your brain and memory since you came out of the womb and always will be?” She did not know.

Of course now I know that logically this isn’t true, but parts of me haven’t accepted it yet. The songs, but especially “Do Lord,” seem too close and sacred to me to have ever not been part of my life. The first time I listened to Cash’s version of “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” I was caught off guard when it started to play, when I heard the deeply familiar melody accompanied by Cash’s smooth voice. I was in high school, it was night, I was driving home, and I started to cry. His was the first recorded version that I’d ever registered listening to, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard another.


“A Cup of Coffee”  


Without including something from Cash’s quasi-comedic albums, he might seem like some dark, sorrowful, and somber figure even in his joyful moments. I can’t decide whether I think his lighter albums (he also recorded children’s music) actually provide a counter to his heavier material, or serve to emphasize the humanity in the sorrow that pervades so much of his work. Probably both; his persona develops over time. The song is also a good example of the spoken word he uses in his concept albums: he’s telling a story, a story that is happening every night in diners around the country. Throughout the song he chuckles drunkenly, and throughout many of his live and comedy albums, he seems to be genuinely laughing at his own jokes; he’s endearing.

The sequence of songs on “Everybody Loves A Nut” makes me laugh. “A Cup of Coffee” is a drunken, half-spoken ode to the beauty of a cup of coffee before a drunken sleep. Following is “Austin Prison,” a song about being sentenced to death, and afterwards the languid “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” in which Cash threatens (humorously) to shoot the dog on the farm that bothers the hens. The order, taken as a representation of Cash’s world, leaves me in awe, partly because someone can remain genuine as he moves through topics as varied as he does, and partly because he had the nerve to do so. And maybe this is why Cash can last: he can be everything and anything, and he dares to. And so, as I drink coffee before I go to sleep on a Saturday night, as I wake up on Sunday morning and stumble down the stairs to meet the day, I can see the beauty—and humor and sorrow—in my world because I can see the beauty in Cash’s.

Bad Issue | December 2018