(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?
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.
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
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."