[Editor’s note: The following is an essay from the new book Literary Cash: Unauthorized Writings Inspired by the Legendary Johnny Cash.]
The last time I saw Johnny Cash was the first time I saw Johnny Cash – and he didn’t look good, but he sounded like home. I lived in Iowa then, in the middle of the cornfields, where country music was the only music that felt right. I took a trip to Nashville, a much needed vacation.
This all happened in 2002, which was not an especially good year in my life – full as it was with too much drinking, bad boyfriends, the end of my life as a full-time student, and the worst winter the Midwest had seen in decades – but it had nice moments.
I worked in a diner – a real greasy spoon – and the morning shift was full of what we waitresses called “The Porridge Club.” Older farmers, now farmless, in Carharts and John Deere hats, who talked about the price of soy and sow bellies, ate oatmeal with extra sugar, drank black coffee, and listened to Johnny Cash. Some of them thought I was cute, and some of them thought I was crazy, but every morning I woke up with The Porridge Club, just as every night I closed the bar down with the punk-rock kids who (like me) depended on 25 cent draft beers for a good time, and who, incidentally, also loved Johnny Cash.
The punk kids loved Cash so much so that they’d plug the juke box – fifty cents a song – and forgo two whole drinks, just to wallow in the gravel of that low, low voice. Despite the fact that country music was, they told me, “fucking stupid.”
But back to the diner, where I listened each morning, with ears bred on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, to talk of sow-bellies and country music. I had the ears of an East Coaster, who up until that time had only enjoyed fiddles and banjos for the kitsch-factor, or maybe with a sense of false nostalgia for an era I’d never really known. But now here I was living amid farms and farmers, surrounded on all sides by green in spring and summer, gold in fall, and white in winter. Surrounded also by people who lived without healthcare, who lived with rampant alcoholism, in blue jeans bought at Sears.
There wasn’t any kitsch in the diner at 7 A.M., in the bacon grease or the cholesterol levels that accompanied the bacon grease, in the trucks that needed a jump start on a daily basis, or in the worn pictures of children now grown and gone. There wasn’t any kitsch in the lives of these men who joined me every day, but as a soundtrack for those years, country was all there could be. I had to redefine this music for myself if I wanted to live where I was living. If I wanted to be who I’d become.
I can’t pretend I ever really related to those men, since I was (and still basically am) me. I don’t know how to understand myself if I can’t be honest – if I can’t paint my own caricature clearly. As a writer, it’s unfair to describe others if I can’t describe myself – then and now.
Who am I? I’m an overeducated woman, who buys organic milk and drives a foreign car. I pay too much for haircuts and don’t change my own oil. And while I was poorer in 2002 than I am today, I was basically the same girl back then, just a few years younger and a few pounds slimmer. I still smoked.
It wasn’t as if I’d fallen on truly hard times, gotten knocked up, or searched for a husband to take me away from the roofers and farmers I served. Or looking among the roofers and farmers for a way out of the diner. Sometimes I felt like that, like that girl, but it was never true. I was always playing a role. And even if that had been the case, I’d still have been me, Jewish, raised in Baltimore by two teachers, a reader of academic poetry. Even if I’d ever become that girl, I’d eventually have outgrown her, and whatever poor diner patron she’d managed to sucker. I can’t lie – I was never authentic. My tight jeans were always a costume.
And as such – in all my privileged glory, I cringed to hear The Porridge Club discuss politics – blacks, guns, liberals, and hippies. I hated the way they stared at my ass. One man had a swastika carved into his arm, but he was nice to me, so I just bit my tongue and brought him his bacon. These men were different from me, a new experience. They would have scared my grandmother.
To say that I understood The Porridge Club in any substantial way would be false. I may be occasionally ridiculous, or petty, or pretentious, but I try not to lie. Whatever our differences, the fact remained: I was a waitress, and I was broke. As such, I was not beyond sharing an experience. For those years I was financially dependent on the kindness of all kinds of strangers, on their one dollar tips. Just like them, I didn’t have healthcare or job security. I shopped at Sears too. Who was I to judge?
All of this to say that I realize I never knew Cash like The Porridge Club knew Cash, or like the punk-rock kids. All this to say that I understand it would be dishonest to pretend I was ever “one of them,” since my own poverty felt temporary to me. I had to believe it would end – and real despair requires a sense of permanence in hardship. But still, for those years I drank nightly, woke with the sun to put the coffee on, shook off my whisky, counted my pennies, and spent a great deal of my time with men who lived that way, and would forever. So it was.
So it was that I lived and listened. We’d all sit and sip our coffee, listening to the words of “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” echoing through the diner. So it was that I’d listen and think. Until one morning, coming down myself, coming down hard, after a particularly rough night and a worse day-before, left by a man I should never have met in the first place. Left, as in, driven away from. As in, abandoned for the open road and countless other women. Driven in all senses of the word. By a guy who – when he drove his cab on the nightshift, sometimes let the drunken girls kiss him on the way home from the college bars and frat parties. By a guy I forgave regularly for kissing the drunken girls who climbed into his cab. That morning, after he finally left me for good, I was no longer thinking. Instead I was feeling, and maybe humming, and for the first time I really got the music. I got it on the inside.
Of course, the man who left now lives deep in my past, where most of the regrettable pieces of my life reside, and I’m a happy person again. But that feeling of getting it on the inside lasted. Over the years that followed, country music became an important part of my life. Even now, it ripples through each day. I’ve become an occasional music critic, writing specifically for publications that cover country music, and in fact, the first essay I ever published was about loving the steel guitar, hearing the steel guitar as poetry.
I began line dancing without irony. I met the man who became my husband at a country rock show, where he was working the soundboard. He still plays bass in such a band, and together we visit Nashville, Knoxville, and Austin. Together we live in the south, where country music is all around us.
But years before we were married, and years after the morning I was left by that other – lesser, regrettable – man, we went to Tennessee, the man who would become my husband and I, to attend the American Music Association’s annual conference and awards ceremony. I took a few days off from my life at the diner, which was coming to an end anyway, as I rose out of that bleak phase of my life. There I saw Johnny Cash perform, with June and other members of the Cash-Carter clan. He looked like hell, but sounded like heaven to me.
We were there because we could be, because we needed a vacation, and we’d heard the music was going to be good. We’d come to see the Bottlerockets and Grey Delisle. A rumor circulated around town that Emmylou Harris would play an unannounced set. I even ran into Emmylou in the bathroom, where she looked as beautiful as she ever does, but oddly out of place, drying her hands on a paper towel with her silver hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights.
But nobody had said we’d get to see Johnny Cash. Nothing could have prepared me for such an experience. In my mind, Johnny Cash was a myth. He was a voice that came out of the radio, a vestigial limb from a more brutal, more honest era. The possibility of seeing Johnny was something that had just never occurred to me – like the possibility of seeing a caveman or a Founding Father. Cash was the stuff of PBS documentaries, not a real live human being.
Suddenly though, he appeared onstage in the flesh. Fleshy…too much sad and tired flesh. Looking like a truck so old that you give up on it, park it under a tree, and plant flowers in the engine cavity. But he was singing, like a truck with flowers in the engine, rolling down the interstate at 70 miles per hour.
Cash sang with June, and then suddenly a handful of other family members too. I think Carlene was there, and some faces I didn’t know, and everyone sang. I stood fixated on Johnny Cash, who – true to myth – sounded like Johnny Cash, sounded like the radio on a frozen morning in Iowa when the windows are steaming up and the oatmeal is bubbling on the stove at the back of the diner. His voice rang out unchanged and unwavering, despite his body, which I could tell was dying and his labored breath.
They sang, he and June, later joined onstage by the whole family for a rendition of the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The crowd joined in. The whole family, including Emmylou, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, and all the many, many people who, with their varying degrees of fame and success could not believe it anymore than me. They were singing with Johnny Cash. Singing with Johnny Cash. Fucking Johnny Cash. The whole room singing.
Bear in mind that this happened at an awards ceremony. So we were all sitting oddly upright and sober, at formal round tables, on stiff and expensive folding chairs. It was a strange place to experience a legend. There were ugly centerpieces and nametags, many men wore suits, while others had on the traditional country uniform of blue jeans and cowboy hats. We all sat with strangers.
My table was full of hipsters, indie musicians representing the new voices of acoustic country music who, in their vintage western-wear finery, wept openly. People all over the room were weeping at Johnny – at seeing him and hearing him. His low voice rising from a face so bloated and old, a face about to fold in on itself. June was a disaster too, straggly and smiling. If you’d seen her at a bus stop without knowing who she was, you’d have looked the other way.
But the love between them was another constant. Johnny loved his fat, tuneless wife, and when I saw that, I thought of The Porridge Club, of Iowa farmwives, of the man who’d left me, and the man beside me, and I started crying too. Crying and singing with Johnny. I stood up. Everyone did.
Living in Iowa, waking up with the farmers and going to bed with the punk-rock kids from the bar, my days both began and ended with Johnny Cash. I didn’t think about it much back then, but when I returned from Nashville, I couldn’t shake the idea.
It was clear why The Porridge Club loved Johnny Cash as they did, since it was the music of their era – of Sun records and am radio, girls who set their hair in rollers and kissed, and then pretended to be virgins. But suddenly it seemed important to me to figure out why the punk-rock kids loved him too. I felt like it was something to understand.
Why did the green-haired and tattooed grill cook I worked with – who later lost his leg to blood poisoning and an amputation – love Johnny so much, despite his disdain for all my other CDs, John Prine, Buck Owens, and Marty Robbins among them? We fought daily over what to listen to when we closed the diner down. He hated country music, hated banjos and fiddles, hated anything the least bit folksy, hated religion and gospel – “fuckin self-righteous fuckers,” he would say – but Johnny Cash didn’t count. He was the only bridge we ever found, my grill cook and I.
It wasn’t just that the punk-rock kids didn’t like country music. They hated country music. They loved to hate it, took pleasure in their hatred, smiled as they spat at it, and laughed at it, at me, once I came to love it so. Their universal mantra: Fucking redneck bullshit…Fucking dumbass hicks. They teased me for my line-dancing, but there was something about Johnny that was different. What was it?
Despair, lack of healthcare, whiskey…there was just something about Johnny Cash, something deeper and sadder and harder, with a little bit of a death rattle, and a little bit of faith. Prison inmates love Johnny Cash, and veterans of foreign wars do too, as they attempt to snap along with missing fingers. Men love Johnny Cash as they leave the women they love, and women love Johnny Cash, before and after they’ve been left. There was just something about Johnny Cash that rose above the genre distinctions. When he sang it, he meant it, and that meant a lot. To the farmers and the punk rock kids, and when I was down, to me too.
Despair isn’t just a cliché, an over-the-top stereotype – poverty and lack of education and fear of illness and the desire for something good. Despair is God and the devil, in hand-to-hand combat. Despair is frustration and acceptance and the inevitable belief in both. Despair. It’s a condition, a way of life. Most of us end up there at some point.
Despite what I thought I knew from my years in Iowa, I’m pretty sure I don’t really understand Johnny Cash. I’m just too comfortable at most moments to come anywhere close. But his music and his life have been powerful enough to show me, as a foreign tragedy might, just how little I comprehend of what it is I’m drawn to. I may not ever know Johnny Cash, but I’m pretty damn sure that there’s something huge in him I’ll never quite get. I choose to believe in that – in the greatness of the thing I can’t quite grasp.
The truth is that I’ve never fallen into a ring of fire, but in his gospel and his heresy, Johnny Cash makes me wish I could – makes the ring of fire enviable. Maybe The Porridge Club, and the punk kids too, sense that envy and feel envied. Maybe that’s important. What else can I say? That ring of fire looks good from where I’m standing, however far off I may be.