Every mother thinks her child is special, that they have something capable of lifting them above whatever stature and station they're born into. But when Carrie Rivers Cash dubbed her young son J.R.'s voice "The Gift," it wasn't the idle chatter of a doting mother-it was prophecy.
For J.R.-later known as John but best known as Johnny-didn't just have a gift great enough to carry him and his family far from the hard life of cotton-picking sharecroppers in rural, post-Depression Arkansas. His was a gift to humanity-one that has brought solace, happiness, laughter, and even salvation to millions.
In a career that fell just short of a half-century, he recorded more than 1,500 songs, sold more than 50 million albums, won every major music award ever created (most several times over) and outsold The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in their primes. He is one of only two people inducted into both the country and rock music halls of fame, having beat his only peer to that feat-Elvis Presley- by a number of years.
He also conquered personal demons so vile they'd rob most men's souls, planted three bullets in the brain of an 11-foot-long rogue alligator ("over open sights, in the dark"), single-handedly charred a forest to ash, bounced back from obscurity countless times, decried injustice at no small personal or professional cost and rubbed elbows with presidents, royalty, murderers and thieves.
He was more than mere numbers or individual accomplishments. No matter how impressive, the résumé doesn't scratch the surface of the man. He did it with unmatched style, grace, individualism and fortitude. He was possessed of an almost preternatural presence that never diminished, even when he appeared weathered and weary on Larry King Live last December with a weakened voice, his trademark black attire fitting loosely on a gaunt frame. It would be his last major public appearance.
Far more than a gifted singer, Cash is arguably the greatest songwriter of this or any other century. From Sun to American Records, his lyrics are as textured as the greatest authors' and develop new and deeper meaning with repeated listening. He also had the uncanny knack to take another's work and make it unquestionably his own, more often than naught eclipsing the intensity and impact of the original version of a song (see the video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" for proof-a readymade self-eulogy if there ever was one.)
He exercised his influence to break artists others wouldn't touch, tutored and inspired generations of musicians and waged battle with the record industry long before it was fashionable.
Red-necked grandfathers and their punk-rock progeny can sing the words to Cash songs, loudly and proudly in unison. Mothers lull their children to sleep with Cash's words and proud fathers take first dances at their daughters' weddings to his songs.
Therein lies The Man in Black's most enigmatic and ineffable virtue. He was at once the outlaw and the old, wizened, righteous monk. He was an embodiment of sneer, swagger and rebellion, yet his temperance was shaped not by blind faith or disdain for the sins of the flesh, but by having tasted these fruits firsthand and climbed, fingers scraped and bloodied, out of the abyss.
He is the prodigal son returned, rested and 40 years on-the prodigal granddad, if you will-happy to sit and share a beer and listen to your troubles and share his own, to offer advice without judgment. It is for this reason generations might tune out the noise from the pulpit, but happily listen to Cash sing the gospel 'til Gabriel blows his horn.
Cash means that much to me and so many others. He is the essence of rock 'n' roll as a philosophy, someone we can aspire to emulate, simultaneously a model of how to live, and how not to live, a righteous life. And by walking that line, he showed us more than a thousand preachers, poets and politicians ever could. Thanks, Johnny, for sharing The Gift. It is, for many of us, the greatest we've ever received.