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May 2001

My Hero
Johnny Cash

by Steve Earle

When I arrived in Nashville in the mid-seventies, country music had long since lost its innocence and was well on its way to losing its soul.  Willie Nelson had salvaged his old Martin guitar and a pound of pot from his burning home and moved back to Texas a few years before.  The only other bright spots in an otherwise moribund country scene were Waylon Jennings, and the wild bunch that hung out over at Tompall Glazer's off-Music Row studio and, even farther off the beaten path, at Jack Clements' place on Belmont, where the musicians ground their teeth and cranked out songs until
the sun came up over the Cumberland River and drove them back to their lairs.

As exciting as all that was to a nineteen-year-old apprentice outlaw, there was one thing that bothered me:  Where the hell was Johnny Cash?

"Hendersonville," I was told.  "Up on the lake.  He don't get to town much these days."  Not owning a car at the time, I was no closer to meeting my hero than I had been back home in Texas.

When I was growing up, Johnny Cash was a lot of people's hero, or more accurately, antihero; most people believed, erroneously, that he had served time in prison.  (That was Merle Haggard.)  It just so happened that the record that had made Cash a household name was recorded in California's
infamous Folsom Prison before a live inmate audience.

He became my hero in 1969 when I saw him perform every week on his own network-television show.  Most intriguing, to me, was his choice of guests: Neil young, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan.  Growing up in Texas, listening to country music and rock 'n' roll, I had always been an outsider in both camps.  John's show made me feel a little less like an alien.

When Columbia Records, Cash's home for most of his career, unceremoniously dropped him from its roster in the mid-eighties, those of us who were paying attention realized that we were witnessing the last gasp of everything we held dear about the music we loved.  By 1987, when I finally met John (as he's known by his friends), his music hadn't been played on country radio in over a decade.  We were backstage at a benefit in Nashville.  He kindly told me that my Little Rock 'N' Roller was one of his favorite songs.  I felt ten feet tall.  As it turned out, my life and career were heading for a twist or two of their own.  The timing of our meeting was impeccable, and Johnny Cash would become my hero all over again.

When you lead a charmed life and believe me, I have your teachers reveal themselves when you're ready for the lesson.  From Johnny Cash, I learned how an artist carries himself when the industry stops returning phone calls. And that if you have something to say and you keep on saying it loud and true, then people will listen.

John, I'm watching every move you make.

© 2003-2005   Clint Harris  (clint@steveearle.net) – All Rights Reserved
© 1995-2003Lisa Kemper  – All Rights Reserved

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