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Why Johnny Cash's music still resonates today, 20 years after his death

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY CASH: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN BLACK")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) There ought to be a man in black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a-coming.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Johnny Cash, in one way or another, dominated the American music scene for more than half a century, ever since he recorded his first song for Sun Records, "Hey, Porter."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY, PORTER")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Hey, porter. Hey, porter, would you tell me the time?

DETROW: Cash is most often identified as a country star, but much of his music transcended genres. He's one of just a few artists who have been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) If you're traveling in the north country fair...

DETROW: Johnny Cash's voice and his songs endure decades later, and 125 of the songs that Cash wrote are included in a new book put together by his son, John Carter Cash, along with Cash family historian Mark Stielper. I sat down with the pair recently to talk about the book and Johnny Cash's prolific songwriting.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Early in dad's life, songwriting - not all of his songs but a lot of them were autobiographical. So it was a way for him to tell where he'd been, what he'd seen and his own life experience. With "Five Feet High And Rising," it's about a flood that occurred when he was a boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIVE FEET HIGH AND RISING")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, the rails are washed out north of town. We got to head for higher ground.

JOHN CARTER CASH: It related a history of America, and he would write songs out of inspiration, of love. You know, it was like, "I Walk The Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night.

JOHN CARTER CASH: It was a song that was needed in his life. He was on the road, traveling all of a sudden, going from city to city, town to town. And it was a long ways away from his wife at home, Vivian. And so he wrote "I Walk The Line" as a direct communication to his wife. It was the truth of his life. And so it was a way of self-expression. It was a way of telling his own tale, you know? And, yeah, I mean, there were songs like "Big River," you know, where he put himself in the fantasy of the guy that's chasing the girl all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG RIVER")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Then I heard my dream went back downstream, cavorting in Davenport. And I followed you, big river, when you called.

JOHN CARTER CASH: You know, then there's "Forty Shades Of Green" that connects, you know, with the Irish people still today. And you cannot tell someone in Ireland that it's not an old standard that was written by someone Irish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "40 SHADES OF GREEN")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) From the fishing boats at Dingle to the shores of Donaghadee.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Dad connected with people. He also connected through those words in ways that could tell the story of those people's lives and, of course, initially his own.

DETROW: That - I'm so glad you said that because there's been so many Johnny Cash songs - while I hear it, and I think, oh, that's probably covering an old standard. You know, that song sounds like it's been around forever. And then you look it up. Nope. It's a song that he wrote himself, but he could still tap into those same themes that so many songs that have been around America forever tap into.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Magical, mystical - like "The Man Comes Around" or "Redemption" - you know, some of the gospel things that he that he wrote.

DETROW: Yeah.

JOHN CARTER CASH: It hits us as something that is an American standard, I think, because it is an American standard. He has a voice that's capable of relating the history of the 20th century America to the public and to the world.

DETROW: It's one of the last songs he wrote, and I wanted to talk about it. But since you mentioned it right now, let's talk about it right now. Can both of you kind of tell me the backstory of "The Man Comes Around"? It's one of the last songs that he wrote. I will say, I think it's my favorite of his songs. What were the circumstances of putting that song down to paper?

JOHN CARTER CASH: Well, it's my favorite of his songs because I was there when he wrote it. Dad had a very cool view of Christianity.

DETROW: What do you mean by cool?

JOHN CARTER CASH: I don't know. Whether you're Christian or not, you can listen to "The Man Comes Around," and it could go good in a zombie movie in that it kicks ass, right?

DETROW: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN COMES AROUND")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) The hairs on your arm will stand up at the terror in each sip and in each sup.

JOHN CARTER CASH: It's intense, and it's powerful. And you don't have to be a Christian to love the music. It was a song of faith to him, but it was not written originally as an intention of it being a Christian song. But my dad made it such for his own recording. My dad had a dream that the Queen of England came to him and said, Johnny Cash, you're like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN COMES AROUND")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

DETROW: Mark, those biblical undertones are a theme throughout Johnny Cash's entire life and his entire songbook. I mean, the book starts out with the song "Belshazzar," which has such an interesting backstory of Cash deciding, this is the song that I'm going to audition for Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, discoverer of Elvis, creator of rock 'n' roll, in some sense. I'm going to come in and sing this deep-cut Old Testament story song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELSHAZZAR")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) For he was weighed in the balance and found wanting. His kingdom was divided, couldn't stand.

MARK STIELPER: Here he is, a 22-year-old, and he is at the cusp, finally got in the door, finally got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, storied Sun Records. And he tells Mr. Phillips that he's going to sing a song about a dead Old Testament king - and as sincere as anybody could be. He didn't think that that was something that nobody would understand. It was such part of him and his fabric and his life and his upbringing that it was just as natural as can be.

DETROW: Now, Mark, John Carter told us his favorite song was "The Man Comes Around." I'm wondering what your favorite song in this book is and why?

STIELPER: Well, it's very, very interesting that my favorite song was a song that he never recorded, and it's the very last song in the book. It's called "I Turn Around Twice." And he was saying to June, he never did think that they would grow old so gracefully. And one day, she became his world. And he's giving us every human emotion that we hope to have, we're afraid to have, we deserve to have. And then when we have them, you know, it fulfills us. And that's what Johnny Cash did. He helped us fulfill ourselves.

DETROW: John Carter Cash, you talked about your favorite song? But on that note, talking about deeply personal songs, what song in this book do you think was the most personal to your dad?

JOHN CARTER CASH: I mean, it would have to be something like "Redemption." It would have to be something, you know, that he exposed himself in by showing his faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) From the hands, it came down. From the side, it came down. From the feet, it came down and ran to the ground.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Songs of Christian faith were everything to him because it was what he believed. And just as he walked into Sun Records and sang "Belshazzar," at the end of his life, it was most important to him that he have a gospel record released, even though he was having all these hits with Rick Rubin. And so the album came out posthumously. It's called "My Mother's Hymn Book." And so what's the most important song that he wrote? It was - I don't know, but it was the songs of faith, and it had to have been. That was his lifeblood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Through the fire and the flood clung to the tree and were redeemed by the blood.

DETROW: That's John Carter Cash along with Mark Stielper talking about their new book, "Johnny Cash: The Life In Lyrics." Thanks so much to both of you.

STIELPER: Thank you.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.