Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash

What is roots music? Is Johnny Cash Roots Music? What is Country Music? Is Johnny Cash Roots Music? What is Country Music? Can Johnny Cash be more than a country music artist? I think Johnny Cash not only can be more than Country Music, he is more.

Gatekeeping in Country Music

Gatekeeping and gatekeepers had very little overall effect on Jonny Cash’s career. Seemingly, they didn’t dare to question whether or not he was country. Others don’t have the fortune of getting this treatment. Gatekeeping and gatekeepers have hemmed in Country Music.

They have kept it stunted. In general the taste makers of country music have succeeded in rigidly defining what country music is.

Zac Brown and his band force legions of writers to ask this question seemingly every time they hit the road. The sound of eye rolls can be heard from sea to shining sea as critics once again try to gate keep country music.

Dr. Colin Woodward’s new book Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash. So did The Eagles. Today The Eagles are thought of as more of a rock act, but you could conceivably argue that they are a country act.

Some people think—assume rather, that country music is as much a part of a region as it is anything else. Its most critically respected era runs from its beginnings with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers into the era where Outlaw Country became more mainstream.

In Country Music, mainstream acceptance means The Grand Ole Opry. Radio WSM, the owner of the Grand Ole Opry, saw the Oprey as a way to sell its main product, insurance, all over its huge listening area. A listening area which encompassed much of the country.

The army of salesmen had always been trained to talk to the lady of the house. These men had also always been trained to play up the needs of insurance to the women as a matter of providing stability for the home. Radio WSM saw The Grand Ole Opry as the main way to sell insurance to the blue collar workers around America.

The stage show of Grand Ole Opry loved to play up country music’s potential leanings toward harth and home. Perhaps this was done to keep the famously well-heeled business community on-side. Perhaps it was done because the Grand Ole Opry wanted to be a destination for the entire family. Families would often travel hundreds of miles and wait hours in a line. There was n guarantee of a ticket.

There were often more standing room tickets than the Rhyman Auditorium could hold. This would result in standing room only tickets being sold for the stage The theater originally was housed in a cramped auditorium. As special as it once was has many notable people and acts which have been kicked out over the years. Many of these acts have come to be known as Outlaw Country. Some have actually had time in jail. Other acts simply never fit the straight-laced image which mainstream Country Music has striven to cultivate since before the major label it was on was Okeh Records.

Colin Woodward’s new book Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash claims his Arkansas roots in a way few have. His time in Tennessee and Los Angeles are both well chronicled. His time in Arkansas, much less so.

Dr. Woodward also takes some space to give the reader a portrait of the Arkansas which Johnny Cash had come from. Dr. Woodward said during our interview that much of the history of Arkansas is being lost. I have said before, and I will say again: History is a verb. History is something someone has to take an active role in making.

An archival role crucial. Historical understanding is just as vital. Historians have to work with archivists to sift through a collection in order to craft a narrative. They have to have the training to tell which loose items are important, and which are not. Which is never as obvious as some people’s impressions might lead them to think. This, at least in Dr. Woodward’s case, is because he is a skilled storyteller.

Dr. Woodward treats a man whose life has been the subject of many works and biographies as though he were a blank slate. For Dr. Woodward, at least, this is because this is true. Dr. Woodward is a native of Wooster, Massachusetts. During our podcast

Johnny Cash has become a grab-bag of feelings surrounding American music. Acts as diverse as Metallica and Coldplay have come out publicly to say they are fans. Coldplay wrote a song for Johnny Cash. The song Til Kingdom Come was written by the band, but not finished before his death. Til Kingdom come, as performed by Coldplay, feels as though it has been robbed of its full potential. Hearing it now, it almost feels like a driving Cash anthem. It feels like the inmates of Folsum Prison would be dancing in the aisles. Especially after Cash defiantly smashes a glass of dirty water on the makeshift stage.

My Johnny Cash feels like a man out of time, not some timeless museum piece. My Johnny Cash was a genre bending musical catalog. My Johnny Cash was more influential than Elvis, more monumental than Hank Williams, and more versatile than Willie Nelson.

Johnny Cash’s music, much like his fame has entered into very rarefied air. Cash has entered one-name-fame territory. The odd difference is that it is his last name. Cash.

His final series of records produced ever so sparingly by Rick Ruben each had Johnny Cash’s name simplisticly rendered in big and flat white block letters on a deep black background. The single word makes a profound and bold statement which ressonated across music. Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” is undoubtly and deservedly the most famous track from this spate of albums. Johnny Cash’s spin on this angsty electronica 90s anthem moved Trent Reznor to tears the first time he heard it on the radio. Reznor was so moved by Johnny Cash’s version that he now performs “Hurt” in a similar fashion. Leaving the loud rage, angry keyboards, and angsty guitars back in the 90s. It is not uncommon to see Trent Reznor play the former head banger at the concert piano.

“Hurt” has become a monument in popular music generally, and rock music specifically as it was re-imagined by Johnny Cash. It went from an angry rant, allegedly about drug use, to a universal lament about a life that was nearly gone. Trent Reznor’s nod to his reinterpretation is now an unmissable homage. What Johnny Cash did with Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” proved forever how versatile and chameleon-like he really could be. Depeche Mode was a popular group who had been at the head of a wave of so-called “alternative music.” Though the London-based group was greatly popular, they were not transcendent. They were rough contemporaries of Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

I can well remember the “Depeche Mode” sticker on the lockers in high school right next to the iconic “NIN” sticker. But that’s just it. Depeche Mode had its fans, but Nine Inch Nails was already iconic. Trent Reznor never needed Johnny Cash’s push to broaden their base and expose their music to more fans. Looking back, it was easy to see an artist making a quieter “Hurt.” Quiet anger can be much more ferocious after all. But what Johnny Cash did with “Personal Jesus” was both obvious and remarkable.

The man who had promised his mother he would lead people to Christ turned what was thought to be an enigmatic ink blot of a song into a rolicking gospel song. Few, if any, could have stripped it of its atmospheric sound and skillfully reinterpreted it as an Americana-style gospel song as Johnny Cash had.

Cash’s music was infinitely elastic. Representatives from nearly every type of music continually claim him. His music has become Americana. Cash’s voice became iconic. But that was because Cash became so big he rose above the region. He was more popular than The Beatles. Johnny Cash outsold The Beatles during the height of their popularity.

With a unique act like Johnny Cash it is crucial to examine his roots. Most people think of him as a man from Memphis, Nashville, or Los Angles. This is not the case. Johnny Cash was from Dyess, Arkansas.

Colin Woodward’s book Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash is available at from University of Arkansas Press.