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Hurt: Remembering Johnny Cash


by Michael Buffalo Smith
September 2003

During the last several years of his life Johnny Cash was in severe pain 24 hours a day. For many men it would have meant retiring from the spotlight and into seclusion, popping pills to ease the pain and hiding from the very legacy he had created for himself. But not Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was the toughest son of a bitch I have ever seen. He faced the pain, took it on the chin, kept recording and performing. After all, he knew, as did we, that that was his very calling on this earth. A consummate entertainer that tore down the walls between rock and country, gospel and hip hop.

No artist has affected my personal growth as a musician and a lover of music more than Johnny Cash. Even my hero Elvis Presley comes in second to "the man in black." The first records I remember ever hearing were my Dad’s -- Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash. I seem to remember my first exposure to Johnny’s vibrating baritone was on “The Wreck of the Ol’ 97,” followed shortly thereafter by “I Walk The Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

As time went on, I discovered old Sun recordings like “Get Rhythm” and as a young teen, my sister and I would sing “I’m Going To Jackson” and “Big Mouthed Woman,” impersonating Johnny and June. Then in 7th grade, I impersonated Johnny in our school talent show, singing “Boy, Named Sue,” and later won a Boy Scouts Talent Competition with the same act.

For all of my 46 years, Johnny Cash has been there. From the trend-setting 1960s TV show Johnny hosted, through his take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” his work with Bob Dylan on Nashville Skyline, and his protest song “Man in Black,” I was right there listening. From his Christian albums and appearances on the Billy Graham Crusades, to his humorous “One Piece At A time,” and The Shel Silverstein tune that landed Cash his first #1 pop record, “A Boy Named Sue,” I was one of the multitudes of Johnny Cash fans. Funny thing is, I still am.

When June Carter Cash died earlier this year, and we ran Derek Halsey’s article on June, I remember thinking Johnny wouldn’t be around much longer. I think many of us thought that very same thing. We had all kept up with his health battles and the fact is, I believe his love for his wife helped a lot in pulling him through many of those bouts with health.

It’s ironic that he died just as he was finally receiving the kind of acclaim he so richly deserved. And the last music video he did, the powerful Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) penned “Hurt” is perhaps the perfect video farewell, featuring Johnny and June in clips throughout their careers, interspersed with stark images and Johnny’s pain-riddled face. A few years ago I heard him tell Larry King that he was constantly in pain with his jaw and he simply had to deal with the pain.

Johnny was a strong man - a brave man - a patriotic and spiritual man -- an incredible entertainer. I am only one of his millions of fans, but I loved the guy and his spirit will be missed. Thank God he left us a rich legacy of recorded music. Thanks, John. We’ll catch you on the other side.

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