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Taking sides: Has Johnny Cash been over-memorialized?

Johnny CashThe Man in Black in 1996, the year he was honored by the Kennedy Center (Photo by Jonathan Wilson/FTWP)

At parties, at concerts, on dates and even on job interviews, we've heard this dreaded phrase:

"I don't like country music... except for Johnny Cash."

Why is this so? Does Cash's music really transcend his entire genre? Yesterday, Lost Highway announced that the Man in Black's final recordings will be compiled on the forthcoming album "American VI: Ain't No Grave." Here at Click Track, our feelings are mixed. In our weekly Taking sides column, our contributors tackle the question: Has Johnny Cash been over-memorialized?

(Read the debate and join the discussion, after the jump.)

David Malitz: I'm not sure Cash has been over-memorialized as much as improperly memorialized. Yes, he was working on this final "American" series up until his death and there is a definite interest in his final work. But the series seemed to become predictable, with Cash as some guy who covers other people's songs in a depressing manner. Give the deluxe reissue treatment to his Sun Records work or "At San Quentin." That might inspire people to dig deeper into classic country more than these final karaoke albums.

Allison Stewart: I tend to think one can never have too much Johnny Cash, as long as it's actual Johnny Cash, and not a covers disc, a remix disc, or Joaquin Phoenix pretending he's Johnny Cash. This "new" Johnny disc could go either way: Besides Rosanne Cash, Rick Rubin is one of the few people I trust with Cash's legacy, though he has been dining out on "American Recordings" for a while now.
But its release six years after Cash's death begs the question: If it was so good, how come it hasn't come out already?

Chris Richards: Every time I hear Johnny Cash's voice I flagellate myself for missing the chance I had to see him perform live. But that's not the reason I think we need to put a moratorium on his music. Over the course of the last decade, the man's myth has spun out of control. Instead of serving as a gateway into country music, he seems to have become more of a token. Sad. And while none of that is Cash's fault, until America's youth can buy Waylon Jennings t-shirts at Hot Topic, no more "Ring of Fire" on the Starbucks stereo, please. Oh, wait.

Sarah Godfrey: If this is really, truly the last album in the American Recordings series, then I'd say Cash has been memorialized just enough. As long as the music is good (and, based on the other albums, it will be), I don't think it's possible to overdo it. But if we get to the point where someone is taking scraps of unreleased Cash material and splicing it with Carrie Underwood to create faux duets, then we have a problem. But Rick Rubin knows what he's doing -- he's a trustworthy curator of Cash's legacy. And I don't think Rubin or these posthumous recordings encourage the obnoxious "I hate country music... but I love Johnny Cash!" contingent. I think that group mostly emerged after Cash died in 2003, and became louder and more annoying after "Walk the Line" hit theaters in 2005. But I don't hear that expressed so much anymore. Or maybe those folks are just being drowned out by the extremely vocal "I hate pop music... but I love Michael Jackson!" set.

How much is too much Cash? Scroll down to share your thoughts in the comments.

By Chris Richards  |  January 14, 2010; 1:02 PM ET
Categories:  Taking sides  | Tags: Johnny Cash  
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First! (I think)

I love Johnny Cash but I agree it's time to get real about him. Rick Rubin did a brilliant job with Cash and in some ways I think Rubin's work led Cash through the most successfully creative phase of his career. But I can't believe there's anything left of value in the vaults or it would have come out by now. It's over.

Cash's image obscures the reality. Go look at his discography and you'll see album after album of stuff you'll never want to hear. "The One On The Left Is The One On The Right"? The album about Native Americans? His patriotic albums? Please.

Let's face it, when people praise Johnny Cash, they're talking about the same songs every time: "I Walk The Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," maybe "The Man In Black." When he was great, he was epic. He just doesn't have the depth in his recorded work you'd expect from a guy who was around for a long time.

He went through long stretches in the 60's and 70's where he made a lot of mediocre music and that was when he was a star. Things got worse in the 80's. More than any major country star of his era, Cash was incredibly inconsistent and probably wasted more opportunities than he took advantage of.

But he's been adopted by the right rock and rollers (Dylan, Springsteen, Bono) and that helps a lot.

If you want to mythologize a country star, go with Merle Haggard. He lived it (grew up in a house made out of a boxcar, spent time in San Quentin, and worked his way through the full amount of booze, drugs and women), wrote about it and made great records for decades (and still does). His body of work is much deeper than Cash's and he's at least as influential (half of the guys who came along in the 70's, 80's and 90's in Nashville tried to sing like Haggard).

He was never adopted by the rock and rollers like Cash because of songs like "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fighting Side of Me," which may be jingoistic redneck anthems, but they're GREAT jingoistic redneck anthems. Still, Haggard deserves a little mythology.

BTW, he also deserves a Kennedy Center award so if you can do anything about that, that would be great.

Posted by: baltova1 | January 14, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

The Post should replace the original article with the comment by "baltova1." Very well put (whether one agrees with the bit about Merle Haggard or not).

Posted by: jkhutson | January 14, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

nicely said baltova1.

Posted by: josh18 | January 14, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Did anyone read the Merle piece in that (semi)recent issue of Rolling Stone? This appears to be a playlist that they created to run alongside it...

Posted by: ChrisRichards | January 14, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

jkhutson and josh18, thanks for the kind words.

Chris, that's a pretty strong Haggard list, but it's safe to say there are probably another 20-30 songs that could have been on there. He's that good.

Check out the version of "Mama's Hungry Eyes" on "The Bluegrass Sessions." It's a song that verges on corny but he sings it with great restraint and they underplay the music perfectly. Now that he's an old man, it gives the memories in the verses even more power.

(In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a pretty huge Haggard fan)

Posted by: baltova1 | January 14, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

But do they sell Haggard shirts at Hot Topic??? Ha.

Posted by: ChrisRichards | January 14, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the finest posthumous Cash release, at least in my mind, is "Personal File," the two-disc set of private home recordings Cash made. Split into sets of sacred and secular material, interspersed with short stories/dialogue/intro from Cash, it's an aural autobiography and a captivating listen. Just the man and a guitar.

Posted by: azender | January 15, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: silviamtez | January 15, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Johnny Cash was one of the last living links to the Carter Family. Although most of his music was not presented in the style of the Carter Family, sometimes a song or two of his did occasionally suggest that style. In addition, his TV show brought Mother Maybelle and her daughters to a large audience before Mother Maybelle was "rediscovered" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It would be good if a Cash producer would look at his entire repertoire, find among his songs those that are closest to Carter Family style and release one or more tribute albums featuring those songs.

Posted by: seltzer1 | January 15, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: silviamtez | January 15, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

How much is too much of any musician? If you turn on the radio, you can get blitzed with music that never deserved to be heard. That same music is repeated in commercials, Broadway musicals, arenas and stadiums, etc. I'd rather have Starbucks play Ring of Fire 100 times a week than Abba, for example.

Posted by: cgold | January 15, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

For those of us who loved Johnny Cash before loving Johnny Cash was "cool," we recognize that the current tide of adoring critics and general populace will fade. Most of these folk have no clue to genuine talent, only "appreciate" music that Rolling Stone tells them it's ok to like and wouldn't know an original thought if it walked up and bit them on the ankle.

I agree with seltzer1 - look at Cash's entire repertoire.

Posted by: Pambie36 | January 17, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

I'd rather hear "July you're a Woman" by John Stewart at Starbucks. His was true talent.

NO NOT Jon......John.

Posted by: therev1 | January 17, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Not that it matters, because politics is irrelevant to art anyway, but Haggard's "jingoistic anthems" were spoofs.

He was partial to cannibis on the tour bus while ostensibly singing against it on the stage.

And: Check out the masterful Bob Wills, For the Last Time, with Haggard stepping in for Tommy Duncan.


Posted by: dbuck1 | January 17, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Johnny Cash was great based on his output way before Rick Rubin came along. He did it his way, and he paid for some of that, just like Haggard has. Johnny Cash was no more of a rock and roller than Haggard ever was. Sun wasn't all about Rock and Roll. Rubin did bring Cash to a lot of the younger generation and that's a good thing, but I haven't really liked the music all that much. Too many critics bowed down before the mighty Rick's work and didn't call a spade a spade. Johnny is a legend and deserves to be. Why not let him rest in peace instead of lowering the bar for this latest work.

Posted by: tojo45 | January 17, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Growing up in the midwest in the sixties we always listened to the radio before school. The first song they would play after the National Anthem was Ring Of Fire. I awlays went to school humming that tune. Cash had a big influence on my attitude about music. He needs to be remmebered as an American icon. As for his latest release, it is like hearing a voice from the grave. So was Hank Williams song Your Cheating Heart which was released after his death. As for Haggard, he too will be remembered as and icon of music. He has influenced many of musicans and other talents as well. Haggard is truly a story of the bottom of the well to the top of the tree. If I go to heaven I am sure there will be a band of gold there. I am sure Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline,Lefty Frizell will all be in the band waiting for Haggard and Jackson to join in. Johnny Cash will always be an icon in the music profession as well as many others.

Posted by: duckie1 | January 17, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I first heard Johnny Cash on a jukebox at a cafe in my home town of Laredo, Texas. "Folsom Prison Blues" sounded good, so I put a nickle in it. I was hooked. I bouoght everything he ever recorded--except for the stuff he put out in his last 3 or 4 years when his voice sucked because of old age. He hung around too long and embarrassed himself on records. Like Groucho Marx, who was wheeled onto the Tonight show on a wheelchair, trying to tell pathetic jokes. And like Little Richard, who was on crutches when he did some Fourth of July thing at the "National Mall" a few years ago. He did his usual medley (for about 10 minutes, sitting down all the time instead of jumping up and down like he used to do when I saw him live at traveling rock and roll stage shows in San Antonio in the 1950s. Those idiots didn't know when to quit--maybe they just needed the money.

I did a karaoke version of Folsom Prison Blues in front of about 60 people at a party a few weeks ago, and it brought down the house. Most of them never heard of it, or of Johnny Cash. The song still works! I wrote my own version of that song, called the Barkin Dog Blues (starting off with I hear the dog a-barkin, he's scratchin' at the door," copyrighted the lyrics for $10, sent it to Cash, said use it free of charge, his secretary said he doesn't receive mail from strangers.

I got fed up with going to his "concerts" in the early 60s when he looked drunk and couldn't sing. In those days, he was just one of about 12 hillbilly singers on tour. Wrote a note to his fan club in Ventura, California, complaining. His wife sent me my $1.95 back, along with a signed 45 record jacket cover and accompanying 45. Free. That was nice.

Didn't know he was a drug addict then...just thought he was a stupid drunk, who was doing nothing more than taking the money and run.

Still like his 1950s and 1960s stuff. Still listen to it. But I'll always remember this, and you should, too--all entertainers/celebrities are doing nothing more than perpetuating/continuing the role of court jester/fool in medieval European's still a low-class profession with low entry barriers, but it pays a lot more now. I don't put entertainers--or politicians--on a pedestal. Too many people do, including those who have contributed to this Wash Post blog.

Finally, a "shameless plug" for my latest book, which came out last's called 365 POWERFUL WAYS TO INFLUENCE. Go to, and you can get a free chapter 1.

-- Don Hendon in Mesquite, Nevada

Posted by: donald187187 | January 17, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

A quick note from Don Hendon in Mesquite, NV: I forgot to mention that I first heard Folsom Prison Blues on a jukebox at a Laredo Texas cafe in 1954, shortly after it was first released. I liked his Sun Records output MUCH more than his Columbia stuff and the stuff on his later labels. His last few releases were jokes! As I said in my previous post, he didn't know when to quit. Guess he needed the money.

Posted by: donald187187 | January 17, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

American Recordings made me a Cash fan - he's my favorite musician - and I listen to his music all the time. I anticipate that his next American VI release will be remarkable - extremely well recorded - raw to the bone - emotional - spiritual - and will bring in even more fans for Cash. Johnny Cash has not been over-memorialized - he never will be and he never should be. He is a true music icon - and always will be and always should be.

Posted by: Shawnie | January 17, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

If you don't like him, don't listen. The record company will take the loss if the special edition(s)stiff. He wasn't a packaged, promoted product; he was the real deal, and we haven't many of those left.

Posted by: Beckola | January 17, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

I always thought that Johnny Cash sang like John Wayne acted, a one act wonder.

Posted by: normasloan | January 17, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

As someone who had the great fortune to see both Haggard and Cash live (Cash both at his younger peak and including the night he turned 64 and was joined by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) I can only say that there is plenty of room for both of these top shelf performers and their substantial recorded catalogs. As for those "critics" who lacked the live part of the experience, your comments ring hollow.

Haggard may have taken his cue from Cash, and we are the beneficiaries. Any time you look at 50 year careers or spheres of influence, especially in popular culture, there will be peaks and valleys. In the case of both men, the peaks are many, and to focusing on the valleys is to miss the point.

The Cash show at its zenith included the "First Family of American Country," the Carter family, the formidable and fun Johnny & June duets, the Tennessee Three/Two, featuring the legendary Carl Perkins on guitar (and who contributed the wonderful "Daddy Sang Bass"), and the Statler Bros., for whom Cash provided a platfor between early 60's and later successes. The Johnny Cash live experience was without peer in its day.

Haggard's body of work is likewise formidable, with a stage show that did it justice.

At the end of his life, Cash certainly didn't need the money, he needed to work to feel purpose. Certainly, many today can relate. At the end of her life, June Carter also put out a new CD. It was hard to listen to that CD when compared to the vibrant, joyous performances that defined her, but if she felt the need to check in with one last project, she more than earned the right. So did Johnny.

As a point of comparison, for a career catalog with more holes in it than swiss cheese, start playing the Rolling Stones disc after disc, and see how that stands up for you. "Turd on the Run" indeed.

My life is richer for having listened to Johnny & June, and to Merle. Warts and all. May the circle be unbroken...

Posted by: WGWillie | January 17, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I certainly don't consider Johnny Cash to be over-memorialized. He was a major influence on not only country music but popular music in general. But perhaps more important than that, he was a great human being, warts and all, and an inspiration to people in all walks of life.
His music will live on for years to come, of that I have no doubt.
I was fortunate to have met Johnny Cash in the Sixties when I was a young reporter and his charm and graciousness have stayed with me ever since.
No, he wasn't a saint, but he was a good man.
Let's enjoy his legacy and not fall into the trap of trying to knock down our heroes all the time, particularly those who are no longer with us and can't answer back.

Posted by: DaveSixties | January 17, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

When my pals were buying LPs and 45s by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, I was using my allowance and birthday money to buy Johnny Cash. (Lord, did my friends rib me!) Love the guy, and I've been terribly disappointed by some of the posthumous releases. The remix album, which I believe his son misguidedly produced, comes to mind. That said, I can't wait for this one. For the first time in a long time, I'm excited about an album release, and I believe Rubin will honor the legacy.

Posted by: ttross1 | January 17, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

this is the craziest thing i have ever herad in my life why are people talking about this JOHNNY CASH is a legend that a human can not have to much of he was the first one to perfom in a live prison with his trademark song and o my god taylor swift ive heard the 15 so many times my ears are bleeding from that winy voice and how nick johans play one cord on stage and jumps up and down to make it look harder johnny cash will be a staple of american culture and i will buy this new cd the first day it comes out o yeah and chris richards it sounded like you needed a story to go on about before you got fired so try write about michael jackson cuz nobodys done that yet

Posted by: clarkestephen21yahoocom | January 17, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

John R. Cash had more talent and ability in one of his toenail clippings than these "journalists" have in their combined beings.

He is NOT being over-memorialized. He is being appropriately remembered and honored. He was a huge star over a period of nearly fifty years. He won 14 Grammy awards and many other awards. By the way, for the information of the first person to respond to this article, John already has a Kennedy Center Award which he received in 1996. He is a member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and The Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He is still being recognized by publications such as Rolling Stone magazine as one of the most influential artists of the last decade.

John deserves the kudos. As for the person who said some of his albums are ones you wouldn't want to hear, speak for yourself. I'm not really into John's Americana but I recognize art when I see it and I still choose to listen to those albums and am pleased to have them in my collection. John's Americana and his love of his country were probably factors in the decision to choose John to be the Grand Marshall of the U.S. Bicentenary celebrations in Washington D.C. Besides, John is a genre all his own. If he liked it, he performed it. It was about art, not about commercialism.

I also disagree with the denigration of the amazing covers John recorded, especially in his time with American records. Cut down, in your ignorance and mean-spiritedness, all the tall poppies you like. John, his music and his life will be remembered a tiny bit longer than you lot.

With due respect to a publication I have read for some time, I wouldn't use this article to wrap my garbage. : )

Posted by: edwardsgrahame | January 17, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I never paid much attention to Johnny Cash until last year, when on a family trip to the SouthEast to explore historical sites and Civil War Battlefields, my 12 year old son heard some recordings and became an immediate fan. True, while our family's taste in music range from opera to Joni Mitchell, I find it remarkable that after hearing a few songs an artist would be so attractive to someone, especially of this age. There has to be something special and remarkably appealing. My house is now filled with Cash: from Folsom Prison Blues to I'm Busted to Hey Porter to the favorite Cocaine Blues we have now become the House of Cash.

Posted by: momsright | January 17, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

I have been a Cash fan all my life. Cash is nearly the only country musician whose music I love. I've never been ashamed of it, though I have had to defend that choice to my peers.
I've got 47 years on this earth, and my musical taste runs more to bands like System of a Down, U2, Green Day, and similar music. Cash always seemed open to other music, and his interpretation of alternative songs is very moving. Last year's American Idol saw Randy Travis (He is one of the Country artists I like, btw) gave Adam Lambert some rather harsh criticism for his interpretation of Cash's "Ring of Fire". I can't help but think Cash would have been flattered and mesmerized.
Johnny Cash took music and created feeling with it. He was not always a chart-topper, but he never fell out of love with music, and music will never fall out of love with him.

Posted by: sheenque | January 17, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Rather than asking if/why Cash is being "over memorialized" let's ask why he has been under appreciated.

One of the greatest things about Cash is that his personal life has largely been made public-the ups and the downs-and his private struggles are reflected in his work, both directly and symbolically. The archetypal themes of sin, redemption, forgiveness, integrity, guilt, love, loyalty, etc. are woven throughout his life and his work so closely that more scholarly studies of Cash and his work (they are trickling out) will, hopefully, address these themes. Much like Hemingway's literature and life were closely linked, I think we will find with Cash that a study of his life alongside a study of his artistic output (which includes works of fiction, non fiction, feature-length movies, TV shows) will give us a deeper understanding of each; and a deeper understanding of ourselves as such studies, when done properly written, always do.

Some may scoff at Cash's concept albums, but such an attitude only really expresses that the bearer does not understand these albums in the context of our cultural history. An understanding of the Civil Rights movement in the '60s would lead one to realize that as people were already starting to think about maybe saying something to someone sometime about how black people should be treated better, Cash was giving free concerts on Indian reservations and in jails and prisons. He championed their civil rights and the civil rights of the incarcerated and was at the forefront of these civil rights movements from the outset. Because he was vocal in his art and his personal life about the civil rights movements, he received numerous death threats-including from the KKK- and was banned from airplay on radio stations across the nation.

The innovation of the concept album lies with Johnny Cash; this makes works such as "Bitter Tears" historical not only for the message that Cash was sending but also for the format in which he sent it. It might not be the most glitzy, polished, musically savvy album ever produced, but for crying out loud, appreciate it for its depth and significance within the greater context of the times in which it was produced.

When Pete Seegar fell out of favor with the powers that be for saying stuff like war wasn't cool, Cash insisted on having him appear on Cash's weekly TV show. CBS told him no. Cash said yes, threatened to walk if he couldn't have Seegar. He got Seegar. There are so many substantiated stories of Cash acting with such honorable conviction that time will show we have no need for myths; the man's life alongside his art are big enough to learn from and enjoy for years to come.

Posted by: skydog1 | January 17, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

My apologies to all the people out there who love country music but I grew up outside of the USA and I heard Johnny Cash before I knew that his music was classified as country music.

I still don't listen to country music but Johnny Cash goes everywhere I go because he is a legend and his music transcends classification.

Posted by: vinrevo | January 18, 2010 1:46 AM | Report abuse

Johnny Cash has not been memorialized enough. He bridged the gap between country, rock, folk, and gospel. He is a national treasure and those that say otherwise are denying themselves the pleasure of getting to know one of history's greatest musical and cultural icons.

Posted by: donn409 | January 18, 2010 2:50 AM | Report abuse

I think the first post is right in some respect with regards to the middle of Johnny's recording career. There are a lot of albums that he put out that are not the most listenable works, ones that you are going to pop on while driving to work.

The poster references "Bitter Tears" (the Indian album), America, and probably others like "Sings the Songs of the True West" and others. These have a lot of songs spoken over minimal guitar picking. These are not a strong showing for Johnny the Musician.

But I think its speaks volumes about Johnny the Man. I think his success had earned him some room to pursue things he was passionate about. He was a patriot, a voice for justice and the common man. Look no further than the track listings for those albums and you'll see the chapters of an American history, one that's not afraid of the dirt under our fingernails. He elected to carry on in a long tradition of oral historians, which may not make the most aesthetic album of songs, but are valuable stories that we need to hear and Johnny has brought them to our attention.

So in the end, I don't think this makes Cash inconsistent, maybe unconventional.

Posted by: LibertasPublius | January 18, 2010 3:48 AM | Report abuse

Some of these paid critics probably said Brett Farve held on too long.As a Cash fan I expected something like this sooner.People have been trying to make him go away for yrs.6os 70s 80s now!We Cash fans have heard it from critics for yrs.He is cool because of Dylan?The boss?Those guys are from the real world.They know who was at sun records.It will great to see the man start off another decade making fools of critics.Maybe you should ask nashville critics about counting out the man in black.

Posted by: chief47304 | January 20, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

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