He Walked the Line
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
Johnny Cash was beloved by Americans who could agree on little else. Was he too eager to please?
By Stephen Metcalf. Photographs by John R. Hamilton

Johnny Cash, so the standard line goes, was a man of many parts. “There was no one single Cash,” the scholar Leigh H. Edwards has argued. “He was always multiple, changing, inconsistent.” He was both “Saturday night and Sunday morning” is how the rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis put it; he was a “walkin’ contradiction,” Kris Kristofferson, Cash’s sometime collaborator and running buddy, sang in a song.

To work my way past the cliché and remember what a high-wire act his once was, I recently rewatched footage of Cash at the Newport Folk Festival. It’s 1964, and he looks almost like Montgomery Clift, a beautiful and half-broken man. He is so lean and angular from abusing amphetamines, he no longer fills out his signature black suit; his eyes are set alarmingly deep. But the unbroken half? It’s downright magnificent, how he chews his gum and carelessly plays his guitar, dead-strumming it like it’s a washboard.

He’d been scheduled to appear Friday night with Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, but missed his flight—a bad omen, considering the shape he was in. His film career was a joke, his marriage in shambles. Some nights he’d “drive recklessly for hours,” he later wrote, “until I either wrecked the car or finally stopped from exhaustion.” And drugs were now overruling his mind. He’d started with a few “diet pills” to pep himself up, but they’d turned him on “like electricity flowing into a lightbulb,” Cash admitted. By the early ’60s, he was in such sorry shape that he once mumbled and paced, zombielike, around the executive suites of Columbia Records.

The executives had seen enough and threatened to drop him. Worse than the embarrassing behavior— banging on doors in the middle of the night, smashing chandeliers—he was no longer selling. The first of his so-called concept albums hadn’t broken out commercially and had gone all but unnoticed by the music press. And so Cash had come to Newport to win over a new, and potentially lucrative, audience—the kids now flocking to Bob Dylan.

The drugs, however, were drying out his vocal cords. Those days, when Johnny Cash opened his mouth to sing, no one was sure what would come out, least of all Johnny Cash. At Carnegie Hall— a previous proving ground gig—he could only muster a desiccated whisper. When Cash finally appeared, everyone at Newport gathered to see him. Would he lift them up as one? Or would they need to catch him when he collapsed?

And then, out came the voice—that voice, the old umami and gravel, with all its fragile grandeur intact. Was he perfect that night? No, but this was Johnny fucking Cash, product of Sun Records, where the perfect was the enemy of the sublime. He played “I Walk the Line” and a cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and then “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” from his forthcoming album, Bitter Tears. After the show, he and a giddy Dylan traded songs and a guitar. Everyone—the college kids, The New York Times—agreed: He’d blown them all away.

The paradox had lived to see another day.

IN A SENSE, the paradox lives to see yet another day in Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, which sets Cash’s contrariness in a new light. Cash, the cultural historian Michael Stewart Foley argues, was not just a country-music icon, but a rare kind of political figure. He was seldom a partisan in any traditional sense, and unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he rarely aligned his music with a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, “Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.”

For Foley, Cash’s status as an artist whose music deeply engaged otherwise incompatible audiences gives him a special relevance to us now. He is a radically unsorted man speaking to our radically sorted times. Just as there are two Americas, there are two Johnny Cashes. One is likely better remembered by older fans in red states as the country artist who aligned himself with Richard Nixon and Billy Graham, who sneered at the “hippahs” and wrote the lines “I do like to brag, ’cause I’m mighty proud of that ragged old flag.” The other is the acceptably blue-state Cash, the anti establishment rebel flipping the bird at a camera in San Quentin; the Cash of Native American rights.

Foley’s method is to remind each set of fans of the other Cash, the Cash they’ve conveniently forgotten, and then show how he made up a single human being, one who did his own justice to the complex task of being an American. The argument has a certain wishfulness to it. To begin with, there’s the faith Foley places in “empathy,” or Cash’s tendency to be “guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to the issues.” What thinking person in 2022—amid the outrage and umbrage Olympics that is American life—still wants an emotional response? We prefer, I think, respect, health care, and a living wage. The case made by Cash is less on behalf of “empathy” than of a world in which partisan affiliation isn’t a depressingly strong predictor of—well, everything else, including musical taste.

In its selection of guests, Cash’s TV show (on the air from June 1969 through March 1971) willfully mixed Neil Young, still giving off the hippie aroma, with such Grand Ole Opry standbys as Tammy Wynette. But how well does such a delightful miscellany translate into an everyday politics? Foley doesn’t say, though he has a maddening tendency to construe the most modest gesture of allyship as a profile in courage. When Odetta, the folk singer and civil-rights activist, appeared on the show, Cash sang a duet with her. A lovely moment, yes, and not without its significance.

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