With his magisterial bearing, sonorous voice and mad-prophet stare, Johnny Cash is a presence made for music videos. And he’s given us some good ones. While it’s not easy to define what a music video is — some are nothing more than snippets from concert performances — Cash has, by my count, starred or co-starred in at least 16 country videos and made guest appearances (broadly defined) in five others. This is prior to the release of “Hurt,” his newest effort from the album, American IV: The Man Comes Around.
The Man in Black’s first concept video came with the picturization of his 1981 hit, “The Baron.” In both the song and video, “The Baron” is a wise and elegantly attired pool shark who teaches Billy Joe, a rising young hustler, how the game is really played. After he’s taken the upstart’s last dime, the desperate Billy Joe bets his last possession of value, his mother’s gold wedding ring. Instantly, the Baron recognizes the ring as the one he gave his wife years ago before he abandoned her. That’s it! Game called on account of tears. An ideally cast Marty Stuart plays the role of Billy Joe. (In 1984, the video evolved into a made-for-TV movie, The Baron and the Kid.)
Cash and his co-stars, Willie Nelson , Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson , appear only as ghostly superimposed faces in the 1985 video, “Highwayman,” a tale of violent death and certain reincarnation. The story is that the director couldn’t get all four principals together to shoot a conventional video and, thus, had to improvise with all sorts of archival clips and special effects. It turned out beautifully. Based on their success with this song and video, the four artists later toured together as the Highwaymen. That union spawned two more music vids, “Silver Stallion” (1990) and “It Is What It Is” (1995).
None of Cash’s videos is more riveting and true to image than “Goin’ by the Book,” his apocalyptic 1990 vision of impending doom. Inspired by the Book of Revelations, the video depicts Cash standing in fire and spouting his grim truths as the war- and hunger-torn world burns down around him.
Artists should know by now that if they aren’t very careful, Cash can come in to do a guest spot and wind up stealing the entire video. That’s what happens to his younger brother, Tommy Cash, in “Thoughts On the Flag” (1990). Written by Tom T. Hall , the song on which the video is based is a measured and thoughtful response to flag-burning as a political act. Naturally enough, the younger Cash is on camera and singing earnestly as the video begins. But when it comes Johnny’s turn to chime in, that’s it. Even the formidable Hall, who also guest stars, can’t steal the spotlight — and the viewer’s mind — back from Johnny’s crevassed face and somber tones.
It’s even worse for Martin Delray in his 1991 production, “Get Rhythm.” Since Cash wrote the song, Delray must have mused, what could be more fitting than inviting him into the video? Big mistake. With his long flowing hair and flashy buckskin jacket, Delray is not exactly linoleum. But when Cash joins him fairly early in the clip to boogie down the streets of Nashville, Delray might just as well have gone to lunch. His services are no longer needed. Forget the dour Johnny Cash; what we have here is a party animal. Oh, he still dresses in black and all, but he’s got a big grin, a wide-open collar and a mind set on getting down. He even attempts a moonwalk as the closing credits roll. The guy looking on from the side is Delray.
Via an old performance clip, Cash shows up in Rodney Crowell’s 2001 video, “I Walk the Line (Revisited).” And he’s there, along with Stuart, Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt , in Mark O’Connor’s good vs. evil saga from 1993, “The Devil Came Back to Georgia.” One of the strangest videos to display Cash’s image is Kenny Rogers ’ 1989 celebration of fidelity, “TheVows Go Unbroken.” There are no real people in this video, only their pictures. As Rogers croons on about the grandeur of marriage, the camera pans across photos of famous country-music couples, among them Cash and June Carter Cash . (The remarkable thing, of course, is that many of the couples shown were then on their second or third marriage and some, including Rogers, would soon be divorcing the person they’re pictured with. But that’s neither here nor there. We’re talking about the titanic Cash.)
Model Kate Moss appears in Cash’s 1994 video, “Delia’s Gone.” But even her fey and willowy form cannot long divert our attention from the Man’s stoic visage.
You haven’t seen it and neither have I, but there is one music video that might have put Johnny Cash in a different light forever. It was made in 1984 but never released. We’re probably just as well off that it wasn’t. Based on a novelty single that stiffed halfway up the charts and containing scenes we can only imagine with horror, it’s called “The Chicken in Black.” Cluck, cluck, Mr. Cash.
Watch the full-streaming video of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.”