Friday, April 2, 2010

Johnny Cash It Is

GIVEN the people who seem to follow my blog, I expected Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt -- both key figures in that transition from country to alt-country -- to run away with this poll.

But Johnny Cash, whose career was both driven and nearly undermined by his struggles with alcohol, drugs, politics and Christianity, comes out on top. He is, to my ear, the most complicated of his generation of country and rockabilly musicians.

I should add, as one learned commentator has already mentioned, Cash does not tower over the competition simply as a songwriter. Most of his great songs were done by the time he recorded the Sun Sessions (though I am partial to a song recorded later called "I Still Miss Someone" that both Dylan and Richard Thompson favor.) His late-life resurgence, fueled by Rick Rubin and the American Recordings, came almost entirely from songs written by others, from Beck, the band Spain, Sheryl Crow, as well as traditional songs. (I love the Cash disc, part of an American box set, My Mother's Hymn Book.)

But the whole package of Cash, as singer, as performer, as symbol of guts and integrity, proved overpowering to the readers of The Misread City. His singing can make a poem of Rod McKuen's sound profound (as he did on "Love's Been Good to Me.)

I should add that while I adore Cash, new and old, I am a Townes man myself, and have strong feelings for some songs of Parsons -- "Hickory Wind" and "She" most obviously. As some pointed out, Parson's was active so briefly that it's hard to know what kind of body of work he would have produced.

The poll, like all of mine, required I leave some people out -- Dolly Parton, John Prine, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy Webb, Kristofferson, others. But I feel strongly that a number of very serious talents were on the resulting list.

To break it down: Cash got a bit more than 1/3 of votes, Willie Nelson got about a third, and Townes (photo, right) a hair less than a third. Merle Haggard, who was leading in the poll's early days, came in next, while Lucinda Williams and Gram lagged into last place. (Parsons in last place? Sheesh!) Some thought Willie, because of records like Red Headed Stranger, should be the winner hands down, and I can't disagree strenuously with that -- I love his '70s records.

Participants were allowed to cast votes for more than one artist. And I limited this to post-Hank Williams since Hank would surely run away with this as surely as Dylan would take a best rock songwriter poll.

More on these American originals shortly. My black hat is off to the late Mr. Cash today.


Pete Bilderback said...

I was one of the few who voted for Merle Haggard, although Johnny Cash is a favorite of mine. But since you asked who was the better singer songwriter, I felt Haggard's songwriting gave him the edge. Of course, Cash wrote some great stuff, but I think his legend is built more on his importance as a performer than songwriter. Haggard on the the other hand has a huge and impressive catalog of songwriting credits. He's a complicated artist, alternately compelling and compassionate and jingoistic and repulsive. (Although I think way too much has been made of that side of his art).

Marty said...

Cash? I respect the legend, I suppose. But as far as choosing something to listen to, never Johnny over Willie...or a few thousand other artists, country and otherwise, for that matter.

Rodak said...

My guess is that Cash got the nod mostly based on the recent bio flick. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are both clearly superior songwriters, imo.
I would have liked to have a chance to vote for Kristofferson and/or Dolly Parton. And Rodney Crowell has written some good tunes, too.
"I Ain't Livin' Long Like This" is among my favorites.
And, if Townes VanZandt, why not Jimmie Dale Gilmore?
And, above all--Steve Earle.

Scott Timberg said...

With all due respect, I'm guessing the readers of this blog did not need that mediocre biopic to remind them of Cash's majesty -- the American Recordings have done a lot more to reframe Cash for an audience of Gen Xers, indie rockers, alt-country types, etc.

Gilmore, Parton and the others Rodak mentions are quite fine of course; this stuff is all subjective and personal of course. Tho Steve Earle would be puzzled at being considered a greater songwriter than Townes: He has called Van Zandt the finest in the rock idiom, superior even to Dylan. I think his line ends with "and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."

Rodak said...

I dunno... My 19 year-old daughter "borrowed" all of my Cash CDs after seeing the movie, because she likes the actor who played him. She and her friends would have had no interest in Cash (and probably little knowledge of his existence) otherwise.
I'll defer to Steve Earle's judgement that Townes is greater than he is. But when it comes to Dylan? I don't think so. (And I'll stand on Steve Earle's coffee table with my bare feet and say so.)

Scott Timberg said...

To Rodak: I don't doubt that "Walk the Line" had a powerful effect overall, but think my readers are significantly older than your daughter (who sound like she has good taste.)

I'm with you re Dylan -- I dont think Townes has nearly as many productive years as he did. But to figures like Earle, Bob Mould, the Cowboy Junkies (tho took their name from one of his songs) and many others Townes was the greatest of his kind.

Rodak said...

Don't get me wrong--I own the recordings of every artist in the poll, and like them all.
That said, I happen to like Earle better than I like Van Zandt--but what do I know?
(While I'm at it, I'd like to put in a plug for Emmylou Harris.)

Scott Timberg said...

Emmylou is wonderful, tho better known as a interpreter of others' songs, most obviously Grams. But a major talent for sure.

Rodak said...

Emmylou is certainly a gifted interpreter. But she wrote all of the songs on "Red Dirt Girl" and they rank right up there with me.

Rodak said...

And then there is Gillian Welch...

Scott Timberg said...

Re Gillian Welch: I have loved her stuff since I first heard it, and since beginning to play acoustic guitar I have been under the spell of gtrist Dave Rawlings, her other half, who I think co-writes a lot of her songs.

Is she, or the two of them, at the level of Johnny Cash, Willie, Townes...? Not yet. But they are among the most exciting inheritors of the country/folk tradition, in my book.

Rodak said...

Is she, or the two of them, at the level of Johnny Cash, Willie, Townes...? Not yet.

Understood. Your poll is--and should be--a "lifetime achievement award." But I mention Gillian Welch with the thought that somebody might see the name in context with Cash, et al. and give her a listen--much as your blog post turned me on to the huge literary talent of Eric Puchner, for instance.

Scott Timberg said...

Indeed... This was a poll for veterans... I could see a post devoted to inheritors.

In any art form my favorite figures are often those who revitalize a tradition in a personal way. Welch/Rawlings are two of the best at that right now, with Will Oldham, Ron Sexsmith, Joe Pernice and others also atop that list.

Rodak said...

Revivals are fun. I came up a time, for instance, when Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen and Asleep at the Wheel were introducing a new generation to country swing. Bill Kirchen was in my graduating class.

FILM MAKER said...

Johnny Cash was country at the cellular level, taking songs and putting his unmistakable mark on them. I love watching JC, June, Mother May Belle and the Carters make music or listen to the many incarnations over his long career, when I listen to "Personal Jesus" or "When the Man Comes Around" and think back on Johnny Cash there could be no other conclusion for me.