The acclaim surrounding Johnny Cash and the recent hit biopic about him—Walk 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 Hills—raises 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, Cash’s life story is filled with film-worthy drama: the Arkansas cotton farmer’s 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 Cash’s 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 music—which pales beside that of other big country stars, particularly his contemporary Merle Haggard.
The key moment in Johnny Cash’s 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 1960s—indeed, 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. Cash’s song sounded all the themes of 1960s protest politics, including opposition to the Vietnam War.
I wear black for the poor and beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crimes
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But jut so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought ’a be a Man in Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
It’s hard to know whether Cash’s recording of “Man in Black” was anything more than a career move. But there’s 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 wholeheartedly—always wearing full-length black jackets, for instance, instead of the rhinestones of typical country stars.
While there’s plenty in the music and life of Johnny Cash that was original and worth celebrating, any objective screenwriter choosing between his story and Merle Haggard’s would simply have to choose “Hag,” the only other Nashville songwriter who emerged from the 1960s with a recognizable politics. The timbre of Haggard’s 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 country’s greatest singers—Jimmie 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 don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take our trips on LSD;
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
We don’t make a party out of lovin’;
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo;
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.
I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball.
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.
“Fightin’ Side of Me” was even more aggressive in denouncing the political and cultural Left.
I hear people talkin’ bad,
About the way we have to live here in this country,
Harpin’ on the wars we fight,
An’ gripin’ ’bout the way things oughta be.
An’ I don’t mind ’em switchin’ sides,
An’ standin’ up for things they believe in.
But when they’re runnin’ down my country, man,
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
I read about some squirrelly guy,
Who claims, he just don’t believe in fightin’.
An’ I wonder just how long
The rest of us can count on bein’ free.
They love our milk an’ honey,
But they preach about some other way of livin’.
When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss,
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
There was more to come, including “Working Man Blues”—“I ain’t never been on welfare. That’s one place I won’t be.” Despite a powerful 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, the Merle Haggard Story—call it Okie—awaits production.
Just as Cash’s music doesn’t hold a candle to Haggard’s, so the drama of Haggard’s 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 he’d been there for the concert. When Cash noted that he didn’t 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 who’d settled in California’s 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. Haggard’s father—himself a fiddle player in the Western swing style—died 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 there’s only me to blame, ’cause Mama tried.”
Intertwined with Haggard’s 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 night’s 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 spoke—through a building vent—to Caryl Chessman, the convicted serial rapist who, as the “red light bandit,” had terrorized Los Angeles women in the late 1940s—but 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 didn’t make some drastic changes in my life, I would end up where Chessman was—most likely without his recognition.”
Haggard understands that “scared-straight” moment as the turning point in his life. Music and good behavior led to early release—and 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 there’s a chance. Let’s hope it happens while the still-productive Haggard is still alive. The widest possible recognition could not come too soon.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images