Man in Black

Lasting gift: Those of us who have been in and around Nashville the last decade saw recently departed country music legend Johnny Cash (Scene, Heard, by Zac Crain, September 18) deteriorate physically. It was the same kind of deterioration on display at the '96 BMI awards, where I was lucky enough to sit at a table with Hank Thompson, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Tammy looked ancient and a shell of her former self. She died soon after. But in Cash's case, his deterioration was primarily the result of the damage to his nervous system brought on by his prolonged methamphetamine use in earlier times. That was his real undoing. Thom Bresh (son of guitar legend Merle Travis, who also wrote songs for Cash) said it had something to do with the unraveling of the insulating sheath that surrounds the nerves, resulting in an occasional jolt being delivered to the body at unexpected times. Yikes! But that seems to be the worst thing anyone can say about the Man in Black, save the occasional squabble from songwriters when Cash would call to quietly demand half of their publishing royalties on songs he wanted to record. I guess that's better than 100 percent of nothing, and in retrospect I bet those songwriters are now glad they acquiesced.

Having quickly examined his bad time, there was a monumentally great time for Johnny Cash. It was a time when Cash, a country music performer, rivaled the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin and everyone else in the pop music world for market supremacy in the early 1970s. "A Boy Named Sue" was the first time any kid going into high school heard a song by Johnny Cash. But like Peter, Paul & Mary, the loopy and simple groove he and his band kicked out of radios and jukeboxes was infectious. Wow! There is no doubt that Cash's success then paved the way to commercial success for the country rockers that followed (Eagles, Pure Prairie League, Flying Burrito Brothers, etc.).

During that time, Johnny Cash also headlined a big, free outdoor Jesus Rock festival in downtown Dallas during the summer of 1972. Located in the huge swath of land between downtown and Uptown, the solitary main stage was set up near what is now Woodall Rodgers Freeway and the intersection of Olive Street. There was no roof on it, and the sound system--composed of old Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater speakers--was feedback-prone during the opening sets that included (vintage) Christian rock acts Maranatha, Love Song, Keith Green and Larry Norman. In reality, most of us who were now starting to bake in the summer sun were unaware of what was to come later. I don't recall any of the usual concert items being present--concession stands, port-o-johns, security, merchandise vendors. And no one wanted to lose their seat on the ground, as the festival grew into a sea of people. So we stayed put. Soon enough, the heavens opened and the sublime poured forth over the unsuspecting crowd.

The first glimpse of musical magic in downtown Big D came sauntering, or maybe it was stumbling, onto the stage: Kris Kristofferson, alone with his old Martin guitar, singing "Why Me Lord" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Hardly anyone there knew who he was, but his songs had a depressive charm. Then came Waylon Jennings and his band, with his tough-guy stance and leather-tooled Tele, playing the basis of what soon became Outlaw Country. In true Opry-like fashion, as soon as the stage was quickly readjusted, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family gathered around two of the front microphones. The quartet also featured daughters Helen, Anita and June (Mrs. Johnny Cash). The crowd was hushed and stunned. And as Mother Maybelle played "The Wildwood Flower" on her autoharp, the hippie guy next to me was absolutely freaking out. "I can't believe it! Mother Maybelle! Mother Maybelle!" Now this was all happening in what is now the Dallas Arts District. And as a recent country music aficionado and player, I was starting to freak out, too. The hushed reverence soon turned to jubilation as Johnny Cash, dressed all in black, jolted us into reality with a fine version of "I Walk the Line." Heavens, at that point the entire crowd would have walked the line to hell and back with him. "I wanna thank you boys for showing up today...Kris and Waylon. I'm glad to see you on the straight and narrow for a change," Cash said in a gruff voice. The hippie guy next to me quickly pulled a joint from his pocket and ripped it into shreds, either symbolically or out of guilt. Later in the set Johnny brought June Carter up for a few tunes that ended with their duet "Jackson."

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