NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash Backlash Feeding Off Walk the Line Success?

Cash Said, "Truth Is Its Own Illumination"

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So why, more than two years after his death, is Johnny Cash selling more CDs than every other country artist except Carrie Underwood?

Even actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspooon, singing as Johnny and as June Carter Cash, are selling more copies of the Walk the Line soundtrack than most country artists are selling. Now that the movie has won Golden Globes in the musical or comedy division for best picture and for actor and actress and seems likely to be nominated for at least one Oscar, sales have nowhere to go but up. Cash himself has charted many archive albums, and his Legend of Johnny Cash will hit the platinum mark this week.

It’s interesting that, as his music increasingly finds new audiences due to the growing success of Walk the Line, there are appearing pockets of critical backlash against Cash. Or rather against the Cash myth or image, for that’s what it actually amounts to.

What surprises me is that what I’m reading is mainly a sense of amazement that Cash was not actually an ex-convict but that his image seemed to suggest that he was. In the movie, his father Ray makes the bitter remark (via Cash’s wife) that Cash’s one jail stint — overnight for a drug bust for speed in Mexico — “now … might be able to make them believe that what you sing is true.” That’s an image I think a lot of people retain of Cash, because for one thing that’s now a movie moment and, for another, that’s been a sort of urban legend circulating for years.

I read one screed by a critic, concerned about the issue of “outlaw credibility,” who actually was angry that Cash’s writing the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” in “Folsom Prison Blues” was just “posturing” because he hadn’t actually shot a man in Reno. Well, golly gee … .

Cash never claimed to be anything but what he was: a man with a guitar and some songs. Songs that under close scrutiny reveal a deceptive simplicity that is key to his enduring appeal. Along the way, Cash maintained an aura of genuine musical and cultural integrity and authenticity. Those are things that are ingrained and cannot be faked. That’s the reality.

Image, however, is totally in the eye of the beholder. That’s especially true when image becomes increasingly accepted as truth and as reality, and then both truth and reality begin to be dismissed as irrelevant.

That obviously has been happening in many public arenas and areas. It’s especially flagrant with the current case of the so-called “writer” known as “James Frey,” who wrote a hugely best-selling so-called “memoir” depicting his so-called “life” as a totally depraved so-called “Criminal” (his capitalization) when in fact the truth of it appears to be about as substantial as a puff of butt-gas in a whirly gust.

It’s interesting that Cash himself addressed the issue of fact versus fiction many years ago, if only in passing. In 1986, he published Man in White, a novel he wrote about the life of the apostle Paul, whose life and writings he had been studying and researching for many years.

In his introduction to Man in White, Cash wrote, “Someone said a religious novelist can be ‘God’s liar’; that is, by novelization of the activity and reality surrounding a tiny grain of truth, great truths can be illuminated and activated. I have not and do not claim to be a novelist, but I suppose that is the form my writing about Paul has taken. I found a story to tell in those few verses and the story I tell around those verses is my own. Of course, the scriptures dealing with the six years we’re zeroing in on [the six years following Saul the Pharisee's conversion into Paul the apostle] don’t need further illumination by me — truth is its own illumination.”