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The acclaim surrounding Johnny Cash and the recent hit biopic about himWalk the Line, whose two leads, Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his wife June Carter, are up for Golden Globe awards Monday night in Beverly Hillsraises a question. Why has Cash stood out for Hollywood from the ranks of country singers, most of whom mainstream popular culture dismisses and parodies as musically unsophisticated rednecks? Granted, Cashs life story is filled with film-worthy drama: the Arkansas cotton farmers son who becomes a star, records with Elvis, but must overcome drug addiction, a marital break-up, and a series of personal tragedies to stay on top. But a major part of Cashs appeal to the Left Coast and elite culture in general is political: almost alone among prominent country singers, Cash incorporated 1960s protest politics into his songs. That stance helped revive and sustain his career and brought disproportionate praise for his musicwhich pales beside that of other big country stars, particularly his contemporary Merle Haggard.
The key moment in Johnny Cashs transformation into a legend and not just another country singer was his March, 1971 recording of his signature song, Man in Black. Until then, Cash had enjoyed success, especially as a pioneer rockabilly singer in the 1950s for Memphis-based Sun Records, where he joined a stable of Deep South stars, including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who revolutionized American popular music. And his career survived the great changes in popular music in the 1960sindeed, he even had his own television show between 1969 and 1971. But as a country music hit maker, he remained second-tier compared with George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Haggard. It was Man in Black, released near the end of his television run, that brought him enduring fame.
By recording it, Cash embodied what the musical Left always sought: a man of the people who is also politically correct. Cashs song sounded all the themes of 1960s protest politics, including opposition to the Vietnam War.
I wear black for the poor and beaten down,
Well, were doin mighty fine, I do suppose,
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
Its hard to know whether Cashs recording of Man in Black was anything more than a career move. But theres at least some reason to think so. As early as 1964, at a time when folk music and the Beatles had eclipsed early rockers like Cash, he had re-cast himself as a topical folk singer, recording songs such as Ballad of Ira Hayes, about the unjust treatment of an American Indian World War II hero. But Man in Black unmistakably placed Cash in the camp of angry protest singers. He embraced the image wholeheartedlyalways wearing full-length black jackets, for instance, instead of the rhinestones of typical country stars.
While theres plenty in the music and life of Johnny Cash that was original and worth celebrating, any objective screenwriter choosing between his story and Merle Haggards would simply have to choose Hag, the only other Nashville songwriter who emerged from the 1960s with a recognizable politics. The timbre of Haggards vocal style, his brilliant musicianship, the autobiographical originality of his songwriting, and the depth of emotion in his work put him in a select league with countrys greatest singersJimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and George Jones. But his public image would forever find itself marked by his 1969 recordings of two profoundly counter-counterculture songs, Okie from Muskogee and Fightin Side of Me.
Okie defended traditional culture:
We dont smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We dont make a party out of lovin;
Im proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
Fightin Side of Me was even more aggressive in denouncing the political and cultural Left.
I hear people talkin bad,
I read about some squirrelly guy,
There was more to come, including Working Man BluesI aint never been on welfare. Thats one place I wont be. Despite a powerful 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, the Merle Haggard Storycall it Okieawaits production.
Just as Cashs music doesnt hold a candle to Haggards, so the drama of Haggards life is more compelling and significant. One incident says much: In a television appearance with Haggard, Cash recalled one of his trademark prison concerts in San Quentin. Haggard remarked that hed been there for the concert. When Cash noted that he didnt recall Haggard being on the bill that day, Haggard replied, I was in the audience, Johnny. His is a classic American story of sin and redemption, filled with cinematic scenes and accompanied, of course, by a world-class soundtrack.
Haggard was the son of Chekotah, Oklahoma, Dust Bowl migrants whod settled in Californias Central Valley (Bakersfield). Born in 1937, he lived his earliest years in an abandoned railroad boxcar, attached to which his father had built a front porch. Haggards fatherhimself a fiddle player in the Western swing styledied when the boy was nine. Soon after, he turned to truancy and petty crime that led to two stints in California juvenile detention centers. Haggard later recalled this time in one of his many autobiographical songs, Mama Tried: Mama tried to steer me right, but her pleadings I denied. Now theres only me to blame, cause Mama tried.
Intertwined with Haggards life of petty crime and running away was an early interest in music. As a teenager, he had a chance to play two songs for Lefty Frizell before a concert by that country great. Impressed, Frizell invited him to appear on stage for that nights show.
Haggard later turned toward more serious crime. An armed robbery conviction led, at age 20, to a 15-year sentence in San Quentin. Here the story truly becomes melodramatic. Sent for seven days to a special isolation wing for having started an illegal prison brewing operation, Haggard spokethrough a building ventto Caryl Chessman, the convicted serial rapist who, as the red light bandit, had terrorized Los Angeles women in the late 1940sbut whose big-selling prison writings in his own defense had made him a cause célèbre for liberal death penalty foes. Haggard identified with Chessman, a one-time armed robber who had also served time in juvenile centers. Like Chessman, too, Haggard had nearly faced rape charges, in a case of mistaken identity. In his autobiography, Haggard writes, I finally grew up in those seven terrible days. I knew that if I didnt make some drastic changes in my life, I would end up where Chessman wasmost likely without his recognition.
Haggard understands that scared-straight moment as the turning point in his life. Music and good behavior led to early releaseand his experiences, including those in prison, powerfully informed his music. One signature song, Sing Me Back Home, recalls those, like Caryl Chessman, whom he saw led to the gas chamber. The warden led a prisoner, down a hallway to his doom. I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest. And I heard him tell the warden as he paused outside my cell, Let my guitar-playing friend do my request. Haggard would receive a full pardon from California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972 and wound up singing Okie for Richard Nixon at the White House; Nixon reportedly told others that he felt like an Okie.
So the odds against a Hollywood treatment of Haggard remain high. The film would have to make good guys of both Nixon and Reagan, after all. But the Grateful Dead did record Mama Tried, and in recent years Haggard has toured with Bob Dylan. So perhaps theres a chance. Lets hope it happens while the still-productive Haggard is still alive. The widest possible recognition could not come too soon.