Johnny Cash once sang, “I’m not a savior/and I’m not a saint/the man with the answers I certainly ain’t/ I wouldn’t tell you what’s right or what’s wrong/ I’m just a singer of songs.” Cash always thought of himself as that singer. Even so, he was a man of constant contradictions. Cash was one part lyrical gun-slinging Man in Black and on the lighter side, he was the devoted husband, father and Man of Faith. He lived both lives to the fullest, equally. Cash lived on the edge, a true nonconformist who sung for the voiceless, and became an eternal icon after being kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry. And when found a home with Rick Rubin and American Recordings his legacy continued into a new generation.
Cash lived his life like one of his songs from the outside looking in. He was the artist whose lyrics of faith never got in the way of his voice of freedom. Cash was no preacher but he lived a life of righteousness, having stayed married to his lyrical inspiration June Carter until her passing a few months before his final breath.
A few years back Willie Nelson joined Johnny Cash for an edition of Vh-1’s Storytellers that was historical and memorable, to say the least. To hear these two American singing/songwriting giants tell the stories behind the songs and hear them sing said songs in such a personal atmosphere was a joy and an unbridled gift to music fans everywhere. This year we receive something more intimate with the release of Personal File. A two-disc collection of solo gems recorded in early seventies and mid-eighties, Personal File showcases Cash and his guitar singing the songs of his youth, some of his favorites, classic and inspirational melodies that he loved and knew by heart.
“Some of those old songs that I used to sing when I was a kid, I still remember every word of `em,” Johnny says, sharing a story before singing “There’s Always a Mother Waiting at Home.” “Songs about mother and daddy were so close to me because (they) were so important…Things about home, home was so dear. They say there’s no place like home. When I was a kid I didn’t know that there was any other place but home.” This song is about a boy who leaves home whose mother gives him advice before leaving. It’s a familiar tale but with a twist—usually in classic literature and mythology, it’s the father who has words with his son before leaving on his own. As Cash sings you can hear the respect and love he has for his mother and her spirit as he forges on his own. It’s such a lovely song that fits with the themes found in Personal File. Most of the tracks on this collection are about family, love and religion. As in many of his songs, much of the influence comes from Cash’s wife, June Carter. You can hear her influence and inspiration sprinkled in Johnny’s voice. Listen for the wonder in Cash’s voice of strength as a man in love and singing the songs that are the portraits of his inner life.
Cash also adds tracks about traveling when he was on tour across America. There’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” Johnny Horton’s “When it’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below), “Missouri Waltz,” “Louisiana Man” and Horton and Cash penned a song called “Girl of Saskatoon” after played a night in Saskatchewan. Tracks like “Galaway Bay” echo the life he had before marrying June Carter, some of the songs focusing on the places he’s been and the joy of leaving those days behind sung with reflective and honest memory. “Songs from those are away places are calling, calling me.” Cash sings, “Far Away Places,” the first song he ever sung in public or as he puts it so eloquently—”…for a critical audience.”
My favorite song on disc one is “It Takes One to Know Me.” It actually marks a fitting end to the first side of Personal File. The song encapsulates all of the hardships that Cash went through in his wild and early days and turns them into a ballad of truth and dedication: “It’s true that I used to be crazy/and harder to love than most men/but the blood that ran through these tired old hands/ was hotter than wilder back then.” To me, this is a love song in the spirit of “Satisfied Mind.” It’s an obvious romantic ode from Johnny to June. It’s as honest and heartfelt you will ever hear Cash sing: “I don’t feel as tall as I used to/maybe it’s just that you’ve grown/ you’re the one that held my hand when I fell/when I just couldn’t make it alone/ I live down all the stories/sang all the old songs/it takes one to know me/I guess you’re the one.”
Disc Two shines the light of Cash’s faith as he sings his favorite religious songs. Even if you don’t share his same ideology, music fans young and old, can relate to the beauty that soars in such lyrics as “In the sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” “The Way Worn Traveller” is one the highlights of disc two. The short song could have been the inspiration to Bob Dylan’s “The Path of Victory.” You can hear the parallels in the lyrics: “Palms of victory/crows of glory/palms of victory/ I shall bear.”
We lost an American icon on September 12, 2003. I have told friends on mine that there will never be another Johnny Cash again. Oh, how I would have loved to seen The Man in Black live, clutching his guitar as he told stories of growing up in the glorious Tennessee with Southern Gentleman sense of humor. Alas, I never got the chance to witness such an event, but thanks to Legacy recordings I get something close and maybe a little sweeter with Personal File.
Johnny Cash – The Legend
Johnny Cash – Love/God/Murder
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison