| One night some years
ago -- it must have been in 1998 -- i got quite a jolt one night at a
Cowboy Mouth concert. I was heading up to the restrooms, which are on
the balcony level at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, and on the landing
halfway up the stairs, i found myself face to face with something out
of a spaghetti western; dressed in a long black coat, two dogs at his
side, a guitar case in his hands, and the most powerful stare from dark
eyes that seemed to ask "And what have you done today that was
it was an almost life-size, autographed poster of the cover of this
album, an amazing photo which has always reminded me of one of the less
amiable prophets from the Old Testament just before he told some
particularly egregious sinners where to head in.
And the "prophet" image is appropriate for Cash; sometimes in the sense
of "a prophet without honour in his own country", as Cash has fallen
from favour with the country music establishment more than once...
On their CD "Old Dogs", Waylon, Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed and Bobby Bare
engaged in a joyful chomp at the hand that doesn't feed older country
stars so well any more in a song by Shel Silverstein called "(Nashville
is) Rough on the Livin' (But Surely Speaks Well of the Dead)", an
indictment of the way in which the country music industry has tended to
cast aside the older acts who created it in favour of the Hat of the
Day, remembering them only in time for a hypocritical display when they
For a while, a few years ago, it looked as if that was going to be the
way that Johnny Cash was going -- the majors seemed less and less
interested in him, and he pretty much only got airplay on
And then he and Rick Rubin electrified the music world with this album,
which cut a swathe across all genres and brought Cash back to the
This album was incredible when released, and it's still amazing now.
The weakest tracks on it are "Bird on a Wire" and "Man Who Couldn't
Cry", which don't really suit Cash's delivery -- and they are Very
"Let the Train Blow the Whistle (When I'm Gone)" and "Down by the
Train", both using the classic -- and singularly American -- metaphor
of the train as a transition, are both strong meditations on life,
death and redemption.
But it's "Drive On" that i find myself coming back to, and it's "Drive
On" to which i had the entire lyric memorised without trying within a
few days of buying the CD; a song that speaks to me as strongly as
Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death", that resonates so strongly with my
own memories and emotions.
Cash got himself in trouble with the Country Establishment in the
latter 60's/early 70's for daring to suggest that, perhaps, the war in
Viet Nam might not be the best idea. But it was Cash (and June Carter
Cash), not the Nashville Hawks who were all for the war from the safety
of a recording studio, who went to 'Nam on their own dime and lived
there in a trailer on an American base and entertained the troops on
their way to the front and visited them in the hospital on their way
And twenty-five years later, Cash distilled what he saw and heard from
those grunts into this one song, with its chilling repetition of the
front-line soldier's mantra - "It don't mean nothin'." -- in a song
that speaks to the ambivalence that America still feels toward that war
and toward those of us (even REMFs like myself) who served in it.
It's The Man In Black still acting as our conscience, still reminding
us that there are things that aren't right that we need to fix.
And still looking forward to that day that his faith told him was
coming -- that day, maybe far far away, when "things are brighter"...
I hope angel wings come in black, though.