Farewell to a legend

Campus Times
September 19, 2003

by Taylor Kingsbury
Staff Writer

If you're looking for quips and punchlines, skip right over this column. Today, this reporter is not laughing.

Last week, the music world lost a true icon ­ an artist of limitless talent and integrity, and a shining remnant of an era when music was being shaped as an art form instead of a commodity.

Throughout his 48-year recording career, Johnny Cash wrote and performed some of the most memorable and instantly recognizable music the world has ever been blessed with.

Whether crooning on his own compositions, or performing standards with such keen perfection that he made them his, "The Man In Black" has always delivered his material with a grace and identity that remains untouched by today's singer-songwriters.

As one of the most recognizable voices in music, when Johnny Cash sang his tunes, listeners knew that no one else but this legend could be behind the microphone. There has never been any mistaking that trademark baritone drawl, and indeed none of the dozens of artists who have tackled covers of Cash material have been able to duplicate that distinctive delivery.

Labeled incessantly as a country artist, Cash had a crucial role in the evolution and popularization of that genre, but some would argue that he played an equally integral part in the metamorphosis of rock n' roll.

Cash's career was launched in 1955 at Sun Studios, the epochal recording house that also gave birth to the first sessions of another rock luminary, the "King" himself, Elvis Presley.

Cash's work has influenced artists as disparate as U2, Bob Dylan, Social Distortion, Leonard Cohen, Slipknot and Justin Timberlake, proof that his timeless songs transcend genre.

Johnny's music has never been country or rock n' roll, but resting squarely on the cusp of both, and shining brilliantly in all directions.

This is why the legend's passing carries so much weight ­ whether you've heard Johnny Cash or not, you have been touched by his music through those he has influenced.

It is my sincere hope that Cash's passing will be the impetus for my peers, and future generations, to go back and rediscover the rich musical legacy the immortal Cash has left behind; and I'm not talking about you meatheads who went and bought his latest because you heard "Hurt" on KROQ.

For Cash to be remembered by those in my age group as "the guy who covered that Nine Inch Nails song" would be a short-sighted travesty.

Even if country music disgusts you, there are many treasures to be found in Cash's discography that will appeal to every music fan. Cash's music has nothing in common with today's pop-driven "barbeque stain on my white T-shirt" country, and it's hard to imagine how the dark, brooding narrations that Cash delivered almost five decades ago influenced such drivel. But we can't blame Johnny for what the untalented have done with his baby.

Johnny's themes have been universal since before he explored them, and his songs are full of every drop of life in the human spectrum: pain and joy, love and hate, serenity and violence.

Whether wishing for the sadness of a spurning lover in "Cry, Cry, Cry," or telling the tale of a mother begging her son not to travel the path of violence that eventually leads to his death in "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," Johnny's music keeps its thumb squarely on the human pulse, which brings his characters to vivid life in a fashion that very few songwriters have captured.

These narratives remain timeless, and it's a safe bet that artists will be retelling Johnny's stories for decades to come.

The easiest way to explore the massive catalog of Cash's work is last year's "The Essential Johnny Cash" collection, a two-disc retrospective that contains most of his crucial songs as well as of some of his most interesting collaborations with other artists. "The Essential" is indeed that, and no music collection is complete without it.

Pick up that collection and listen for yourself how powerful this legendary performer's work remains.

Those who have already had their lives touched by Johnny's music know what we have lost, and we can only hope that others will be persuaded by this landmark passing to find out.

Now, if I may, I would like us to bow our heads in silent recognition of the music, career and life of the eternal Johnny Cash.

I'm not sure how well this will work, since we are not a radio or television station. Still, we will try, and I hope you will take part in what will be, perhaps, the first printed moment of silence.

Taylor Kingsbury, a senior journalism major, is a columnist for the Campus Times. He can be reached by e-mail at