The Johnny Cash road goes on forever

His life has ended, but the spirit of Johnny Cash endures.

Gabriel Shapiro

Johnny Cash is gone. The vacancy he leaves behind might never be filled, not just because of his music or his attitude or his embrace of so many facets of American song, but because he embodied all these things. There will be stories for years to come to the effect of “Johnny Cash was the real deal” or “the Man In Black, he was one bad dude.” But these will, for all their inevitable hyperbole and sycophancy, miss his unique syncretism, which made Cash truly great.

Perhaps the best way to sum Cash up is to look through his massive catalog and realize he was unique because his career spanned the entire life of rock music and most of country. Cash seamlessly moved between the two genres, never out of place in either. He told stories of loss and pain, hard luck and hard living, never worrying about authenticity because he didn’t have to. Cash called it how he saw it, and having seen so much, he could talk about almost anything. The Avril Lavignes and Justin Timberlakes of the world ring false for exactly this reason; having seen next to nothing, you can’t say much about anything.

Cash spent a good deal of his career championing other songwriters. It is fitting, then, that one of his last “performances” was the much-hyped video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”: A simple, moving look back at images from Cash’s past and career paralleled by a distressing sense of his deteriorating condition. In the video, Johnny smiles only when images of his wife, June Carter Cash, who preceded him in death this May, flash by. One senses that the mere months they spent apart were too much for Johnny to bear.

There is no shortage of options for those new to Johnny Cash’s music, and one can start pretty much anywhere. Just be prepared – Cash’s music isn’t bubblegum pop. There are real stories told and a whole bunch of life smashed into the lean space of each song. As Cash’s passing marks the end of one of the greatest careers in all of American music, Johnny will live on forever in his fans and his songs.