We still mourn Johnny Cash. To honor the balladeer, who died on Sept. 12, 2003, we resolve to wear more black, to raise our voice in song, to act badly when it seems right, and to repent hard afterward. We're left with questions, though. How did a devout Christian become a hero to rebels? How did a rebel become part of the notoriously conservative country music canon? How could anyone stay cool for his entire life?
The answers are elusive. In the 1960s, Cash (along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard) kicked dirt on the rhinestone-suit-wearing Grand Ole Opry types in songs such as "Man in Black," with lines like, "Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose/ In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes/ But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back/ Up front there oughta be a Man in Black." We're indebted to the Man for his honesty, but the women around him (not to mention his internal organs) suffered mightily. Religion was in his lyrics, but Cash was no paragon of ethics.
All that changed when he married June Carter in 1968. Cash had been openly hostile to the country music establishment, but he had just married its crown princess. With her help, he let go of his bad habits, and in the 1990s became so popular again that it would have been embarrassing for mainstream country not to claim him -- not that you could hear his songs on country radio.
Tonight, Speedy's Wig City and Ranchero Records put on a "Tribute to Johnny Cash." Rockabilly scenesters probably don't give a shit about the above questions -- tonight, especially, they'll be too busy drinking in the Pabst and the live music (from the Hacienda Brothers, Red Meat, Deke Dickerson & Sugarballs, the Royal Deuces, and the Hillside Wranglers). That's a fine way to remember him, too.