Richard Beck’s latest posts on Johnny Cash reminded me of a very similar piece I wrote about five years ago on my old blog site. Like Richard, I have had times of fascination with Cash and his attempt to hold together the images of outlaw and saint that occupy his music. Anyway, as this post reveals, I mark a late shift in Cash’s life where the image of outlaw is less pronounced, and I think this in turn makes for both better theology and music.
Rick Rubin is one of my heroes these days. He’s a record producer who makes everyone sound great. I’m enjoying Jakob Dylan’s solo cd these days, a Rubin product. Though I haven’t heard it (really, I haven’t), he also did the new Neil Diamond cd that debuted at #1 (I did see Neil Diamond at Starbuck’s in Malibu a few weeks ago. So, there’s that).
To me, however, Rubin’s most amazing achievement was with Johnny Cash, late in Cash’s life. Rubin produced the American Songbook series. There were some Cash originals in the mix (e.g., Unchained, The Man Comes Around), but most were covers, and some were spectacular. He covered acts as diverse as U2 (One), Depeche Mode (Personal Jesus), Soundgarden (Rusty Cage), Tom Petty (Won’t Back Down), and Nine Inch Nails (Hurt). Cash’s version of Hurt is particularly gripping.
I’m of the opinion that the American collection is Cash’s best work. I like the early Cash (Walk the Line, Still Miss Someone, Ring of Fire) and the later Cash. The middle years, I can do without. And part of it, I think, is due to the conflicting images Cash tried to hold together. He cultivated both his image as an outlaw and a saint. He sang Folsom Prison Blues and Rock of Ages, trying to be simulataneously sinner and saint. As a result, in my opinion, he couldn’t find his voice and his life was a mess.
I’m currently studying at a Lutheran seminary. I know the way that a particular reading of justification by faith has produced a strong theological tradition that emphasizes humans as simultaneously sinners and saints. At one level, this is undeniable, and there are healthy gains that come from regonizing both.
This is a tough tension, however, around which to sustain an identity. The outlaw image tends to prevail. Romans 7 typically kicks Romans 8′s rear, experientially speaking. Moreover, guilt and shame are not the only human issues addressed by the cross. Which brings me back to Cash.
Rubin has written about the first time he ever saw Johnny Cash. Cash had to be carried down a set of stairs into the recording studio. He was crippled and nearly blind. Rubin thought he had made a mistake to throw his lot in with Cash. Until they handed Cash a guitar and he started singing. Those who have listened to the America cd’s know that his voice is not the same. It’s not as strong. It’s a little ragged at times. But it is nonetheless powerful. It carries forward all the years and experiences of his life. You can hear both the pain and the hope.
Over the later years of his life, pain was Cash’s constant companion. And his song choices dealt less and less with the theme of the outlaw, and more with the image of the sufferer. As a result, Hurt and When the Man Comes Around sit comfortably together on the same CD. They are of a piece. And they carry deep pathos. You don’t doubt that Cash is singing about something real.
When Christians try to engage in public speech, often we divide the world around the issue of guilt (it would be an improvement to talk about shame, though this is another post for another time). This leads us into the often confusing and potentially hypocritical dichotomy of sinner and saint. It can be a tough conversation to get off of the ground, and one that in my opinion misses the real significance of the gospel. We run into the same confusing categories that Cash did in his lost middle years.
The gospel of a crucified God, however, has great resonance with suffering, and suffering cuts across every human life in ways that demand an account of God’s presence in the world. Part of Cash’s appeal in his later work was due undoubtedly to Rubin’s genius as a producer. But part of it has to do with his move away from outlaw/saint to sufferer/saint. I think we might learn a thing from Johnny Cash.