The phone rang at 5:50. AM. Recovering from a vicious stomach flu that strafed me until my cells all pounded from the screaming pain, unconsciousness would be putting it mildly,. But the Associated Press needed reaction to the news we'd all been dreading, knew was inevitable, yet wishfully denied by virtue of the power of the man, the myth, the music.
Johnny Cash had passed away. My world -- a foggy beyond exhaustion dizziness -- needed to be cut through NOW. In the name of deadlines whirring, moments passing and the celebration of the life and songs of one of the greatest icons our country ever produced.
Johnny Cash. The man in black. The man who stood for the poor, the overlooked, the cast-off, different, uneducated and any other characteristic that would or could make a human being "less than."
Johnny Cash -- as close to the Voice of God as any mortal man can hope to be. Deep. Thunderous. Rich. Solid. Strong. Craggy from a life lived without apology -- complete with immersion in humanity, a witness to pain in its many forms, sowing dignity and care wherever he went.
And then there was the music. And not just the obvious hits -- "Big River," "Ring of Fire," "I Walk The Line," "Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" - but the riveting "John Henry," the thumpety thump of racing hearts "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," the hilarious latter day "One Piece At A Time," the carnal meltdown of threatened adultery on top of a marriage born of utter lust sung with June Carter "Jackson" and his haunted recent work with Rick Rubin, from the deep Gothic "Delia's Gone" to his inside out meditation on pain and addiction that is a far more ravaged read of Trent Reznor's "Hurt."
One could get lost in the songs, the common poetry and empathy. Except there are calls to make, ducks to put in a row and have dial their respective phones. Hierarchies, even, of who they want and who they don't -- but who are, damnit, absolutely valid.
So, at 6:10 in Las Vegas, a cell phone rings and goes to voice mail. Jeff Bates has had a long night and no doubt, as the newest client, has no idea
what could be so impossibly important.
Figuring Terri Clark is in Switzerland, but there's no way to get her numbers yet; that Kenny Chesney is somewhere in international waters; that Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks have just shifted time zones again and are locked down on their buses, out of safe reach of their cell phones; and John Michael Montgomery is lost somewhere on the back of a farm that barely gets cell service on the best day, there's only one thing to do: leave urgent messages and wait. Pray they'll call back.
Oh, and wake up the baby act's manager…
Also, to get on the phone to critical print outlets. See how tight those deadlines really are -- and buy time. Buy time and remind them as they're passing on Jeff Bates, the Mississippian man who's a more fitting legacy of Cash's meaning than all the bright shiny bold faced names in the galaxy of hillbilly stars. Born poor. Barely educated, but filling the gaps on his own. The child of a Native American mother who can't even pinpoint a father -- making the mongrel Alabaman a dodgy risk who was ultimately adopted by a sharecropper and his Pentecostal preacher's daughter wife -- he understands every intricacy of being an outsider.
"I never really fit in any place/ Because there's always a part of me to hate…" he confesses on the title track to Rainbow Man, a debut album released at the tender age of 39. 39 years old, following a serious crystal meth addiction, a stint in jail for grand theft over $25,000 and drug charges, and four marriages. If he's come to acceptance -- mostly of himself as he is, but also of others -- the hard way, he embraces it with the very same grace that marked Johnny Cash's life.
The phone rings back a few minutes later. The deep voice that's equal parts Barry White bottom, Conway Twitty eroticism and Mississippi River gravel asks, "What's wrong?" Then proceeds to talk about his father's love affair with Cash's music -- "the harshest reality I ever heard in songs -- and just like where we were from" -- and the recognition of similar demons.
Like a good soldier, he starts making his calls. Ironically the journalists who had to be coerced to deal with this plain dirt person in a world of glitterati and marquis caliber celebrity call back to acknowledge the validity of the slow talking songwriter's witness.
Amid the whirl, Ronnie Dunn calls in. Visibly shaken, the man with the most emotive, flexible, strength-in-the-moment voice in modern country music is faltering. His statement is the classicism of modern country royalty… but it's in the head-shakingly confessed outpouring of moments that the power of the passing descends.
Janine Dunn, his longtime bride, was a widow when they met. Johnny Cash and June Carter had been in the bridal party of her first wedding, making their relationship with the icons more familial than musical. Their moments were marked with a deeper kind of intimacy -- less the rock & roll totem than the patriarch and matriarch of a very, very grounded family.
For Ronnie Dunn, taciturn at best, this was daggers dipped in acid. And then there was his own wife's pain, that need to be strong for someone sustaining an even graver loss.
So it went all morning, Air traffic controlling the big interviews. Getting the official statements out. Finding the people where and how you could. Being the bearer of bad news, listening to the jumble of emotions -- the shock, pain, confusion, fear, sadness, terror even -- that made up their response and recognizing Johnny Cash was a man who these artists desperately wanted to pay their respects to.
Kenny Chesney, actually sitting in a Waffle House -- back from the islands for 48 hours to attend another funeral, one for one of his bus drivers found dead from congestive heart failure in a hotel room the day he was to close on a house, no next of kin only next of employer -- and trying to make sense of the death. Terri Clark on the side of the stage in Gstaad, Switzerland, pulled from a soundcheck to hear the news and respond -- dazed by both the raggedness of the loss and the time zone cha cha whiplash of international travel. Kix Brooks, back from an early run to the golf course and already aware, able in his lucidity to address the facets of a man who meant much to many in many, many ways.
Johnny Cash was like that. In his humility, he inspired all of us to be more, to be better, to have integrity. To hear Johnny Cash, to gaze upon a countenance that was essentially a portrait of the human condition, it was the know peace and pain, torment and release, love and sorrow, but above all, faith.
No matter what… No matter how lost or wild… There was always faith to bring him home. It may've faltered. Been battered, tattered, torn and bruised along the way -- but it was a constant undertow to pull his soul back to the shore where it belonged.
When I think of Johnny Cash -- beyond torturing my Latina college suitemates with those bumping backbeat heavy early records that were all rockabilly and adrenalin and raising him as the ultimate punk rock symbol back when the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were raging -- I think of a pillar of strength, a mountain of humanity that could weather any storm, survive the pain -- which he most certainly felt -- and maintain his dignity as a man and his artistry in the truest sense.
Not that anyone necessarily cares what I think -- a midwifer of dreams, believer in the poetry of the lives lived, survivor of lost nights, broken heels and brokener hearts, I am one more handmaiden to the celestial beings. Taxi dancers who give their souls to the songs must choose wisely for it's an all-consuming high-stakes kind of musical poker… and if you cast your soul capriciously, you come to know the hard way that Johnny Cash is about the only surest bet in town.
His memory should be celebrated. His legacy cast in the words of those who survived, whose music thrived because of the songs of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and the Carter/Cash Families.
There had been no time to breath, to think, to pause this sad day. Churn the phones -- cell and hotel room. Burn the e-mail. Cut and paste and resend. Bob and weave. Create and recreate and try not to remember… until now… on a plane home, still sick from the flu that makes your ribs ache, heading home to my own little bed.
When my own father died of a protracted illness that wasted him slowly, stealing his power and his shine, it was those calls from unexpected places that pulled me through. Just the notion that somebody knew, cared, felt it. And so I dialed, only my friend was at the funeral parlor when she answered -- clearly an inopportune time.
But the voice of the sad lost little girl that overwhelmed the wet lushness of the woman who testified about "Seven Year Aches," anguished about living ghosts in "A Lover Is Forever" and "Why Don't You Quit Leavin' Me Alone," stood naked and vulnerable in "The Real Me," embraced a gentle tempest in "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me" and got all over the musical joy of her father's tale of musical arrival "Tennessee Flat Top Box" was the embodiment of stillness engulfed in sorrow. She had lost her Daddy. It's a pain like no other, never lessened or tempered by the knowledge it was coming.
On her Rules of Travel, Rosanne Cash sang a song with her father called
"September When It Comes." It was generational. It was inevitable. It captured the horrible recognition of the ravages of times with a bittersweet beauty that transfixes you with its fragility. Both vocalists know what is to come, but they bravely stiffen their lips, resolute in the understanding there is something beyond the known. Perhaps that's the greatest truth of Johnny Cash's resolve. His faith was such that we can almost know by his passing that there must be more beyond the mortal coil.
Will The Circle be Unbroken, Volume 2 opens with Johnny Cash singing the Carter Family staple "Life's Railway To Heaven." He is joined by his great love June Carter Cash and her sisters Helen and Anita for as simple a profession of faith as one could hope for. On the wings of blood harmonies, it brings the hereafter here and now -- and sets the listener free with its unnuanced courage of conviction.
Whether you believe or not is irrelevant. Listening to "Life's Railway," it is impossible to doubt.
It's fitting then that the first guest on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's third installment of their musical, generational and philosophical merger was Johnny Cash. For this outing, Cash asked if he could bring in a song he'd never got around to recording -- "Tears In the Holston River," a song about Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter's passing and funerals. That performance, along with American IV: The Man Comes Around, the single and video for "Hurt," are all nominated for awards at this November's CMA Awards. Even now, his force may flicker, but always shines.
Helen Keller once wrote, "It's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." Johnny Cash lived his life like a blaze of glory -- throwing light into the deepest crevices and recesses of this world, so we could see or be seen, know or be understood.
The Dirt Band's boyish guitarist/vocalist Jeff Hanna, a dear friend, has voice that deserves to be heard in the wash of response even if the band couldn't justify keeping a publicist on retainer. Stammering and talking through tears, he spoke of the fellowship Cash brought through moments and music, the shock waves of recognition that rolled through you being in close proximity of a legend who'd been an indelible part of his childhood tempered by the easy way Cash had.
But it was Ronnie Dunn whose benediction offered solace amongst the sorrow. In a voice that bore no recognition to the muscular power-tenor that attacks America's concert stages with a fire and ferocity each night, he spun out the truth as he believed it: A man in black stepped through three pearly white gates today Into the waiting arms of his angel June Carter Cash. Mortal man may be saddened, but heaven's singing…
The Louvin Brothers have their own anthem of redemption with "The Angels Rejoiced." Though "The Ballad of John R." was never quite so hard-won or stark, the joy of the deliverance was no less great.
Recognizing freedom from devastating illness and a reunion with the true love of his life, we should all find joy in the passing of one who truly made a difference. He wasn't afraid to burn, to love, to seek, to live with complete abandon. But also with a strength that made him regal in the hushed way of kings.
Tonight, 37,000 feet above America, I can finally inhale. Take it all in. Consider something more than facts, feelings. Reach for a meaning more powerful than stats or Grammys or grand reviews.
Up here with eyes on fire from the searing tears that just keep rolling down my face from loss and exhaustion, there is much to remember about living a life of integrity. For honor only comes from honesty. Sacrifice for something greater, something more is the only way. And the joy truly does come from the journey.
Stones in the road, absolutely. But laughter and passion burn far more intensely when you give yourself to it. So tonight that is the lesson of passage -- and it is one to be kept close through the mourning.
-- Holly Gleason
Flight 1970 to Nashville