The Man in Black is Gone

“Ah fell in to a burnin’ ring of far —
Ah went down down down and the flames went har…”

This is how we used to make fun of Johnny Cash when I was a snot-nosed junior-high kid. It was how most people we knew made fun of Johnny Cash. But it should also be noted that we knew the words to his songs and listened to his albums whenever we got the chance.

There was no avoiding the Man in Black when I was a kid. I grew up for the most part in a small Wyoming town that wouldn’t get an FM station until 1978. Naturally, to placate the population of ranchers who made up the bulk of the town’s population at the time, the station’s two staples were Paul Harvey’s News and Comment and country music.

If my folks had had their way, I never would have been introduced to Cash. They were into Big Band and the easy listening sounds of Dean Martin and Perry Como. I still have a thing for Harry James.

But when I went over to my friend’s house to meet with the gang, we pulled out his parents’ Johnny Cash albums and listened to them. Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin were special favorites of ours. I can’t explain why. I guess Cash sang about dark things that we could only imagine at that age (although we all understood A Boy Named Sue), and to be singing about them in front of an audience of hardened criminals…

Well, that was just about the coolest thing ever.

Yes, we made fun of his diction, or lack of it. We made fun of his three-note baritone singing range. We made fun of the simplicity of his songs. But we always went back for more…

I wasn’t a real hellion or rebellious sort as a kid. I was born too late to rebel with Elvis or the Beatles or Stones; I was too late for psychadelia, which I have developed a strange latter-day affection for. I was born too early for the Clash to be an influence on me, although I love that band. I was too early for New Wave and Punk to be anything other than something I enjoyed listening to.

So if there was any one artist who was the voice of my adolescent rebellion, it was Johnny Cash.

Oddly, even though he had long dropped from the airwaves, even though Garth Brooks turned country music into pop, and even though Cash recently became cool again by singing with U2 and covering a Nine Inch Nails song and truly making it his own – I never owned one of his albums.

Maybe it’s better that way. If I listened to him all the time it might dull the effect that hearing Cash has on me now.

Just a few bars of that boom-chicka-boom guitar and those first few guttural notes turns back the clock faster than you can imagine.

It’s a hot, dry, dusty summer morning in Gillette, Wyoming. I’m riding my almost-too-big bicycle down a red scoria road, through the trailer park, down to my friend’s house. Everyone’s parents are at work and we’ve got a day full of important things to do. But to start things out, he’s going to carefully sneak out an LP record from its sleeve and we’re going to listen to I Walk The Line


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