An Authentic Hero Passes

Johnny Cash is dead. I can no longer tout, as I had been for years now, the notion of "Johnny Cash for President."

It came to me around the time of the Reagan emergence, when the inane notion of celebrities as political leaders first took serious root. The way I figured it, if the pendulum was swinging that way, let's get someone at least up to the moral measure of the job, someone who possessed the sort of personal character that bore the rare quality of being truly presidential. Johnny Cash was a lock cinch.

Much can be said of Cash -- the man and of his music. The sum total of either or both is that he was a true Great American, complete with a visage that seemed cast by God for Mt. Rushmore and a voice that sounded like a deep echo of truth from the valley below it.

We toss around heady terms of praise like "hero" and "genius" so much in the current cultural succotash that they've become common and bereft of true meaning. Though I've a good guess that Cash would have demurred on such praise, he nonetheless cut a heroic figure as he strode and sometimes stumbled through life. And much of his work -- from "I Walk The Line" and "Hey Porter" through to recent recordings of songs by Nine Inch Nails, Beck and Soundgarden alongside cowboy and folk songs as well as compositions from superior songwriters of the '60s and '70s -- resonates with the sweet music of genius.

I never knew the man, only shook his hand once at a reception for his stepdaughter Carlene Carter. And watched he and wife June Carter Cash do their best to shrink into their chairs a few years later when, not knowing they were in the audience, Carlene during a show introduced a song as one that "Put the c**t back in country."

But I knew him from my life, and how his music caught the ear of a rock fan and helped teach me the eternal verities and value of real country music. At age 14, doing my best to grow my hair, I worked as a groom at a horse show with a gen-u-wine redneck. We didn't see eye to eye on much beyond horses, but one night at a diner, when the relevant commentary of Cash's "What Is Truth?" came on the juke, we agreed that it was a good song and Cash was an artist and man we admired.

I did spend enough time with Cash and his music and story as well as within a degree or so of separation from him to feel as if I knew him -- not personally, but maybe who he was. During the early 1980s, my roommate at the time was writer Patrick Carr, who later co-wrote the most recent edition of Cash's autobiography. At the time he was pitching one glossy intellectual New York-based publication after another on a story on Cash, who he'd known for some time, and was snubbed like he was trying to sell them backwoods snake oil or some Southern roadside trinket. But my pal Paddy knew the score: Cash was hip, always had been.

So it was gratifying to see Cash get the respect of the self-anointed cognoscenti over the last decade, and see his passing mourned across the fractured spectrum of today's America. But there remains a tad of irritation at such respect being more than long overdue. Cash was the best-selling act on Columbia Records who told them they should keep making records with the young Bob Dylan because he was an important artist. He was the TV host who welcomed Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young and the once blacklisted Pete Seeger to his prime-time variety show filmed in the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. He was the singer who embraced emerging songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello within his country fold even in late '70s and '80s when the cool crowd thought him a relic of the past. Hip-hop and metal producer Rick Rubin didn't revive Cash in the early '90s, but rather helped him reinvent himself again and gain credit due him all along.

I knew Cash was not long for our world when his wife and rock June passed away a few months back. And oh, do we so still need men like him now. He was a moral man in the best sense of the term, and a human being of compassion, humility and humor as well as both weakness and strength. He was an authentic Christian whose politics seemed to be, as best one could divine, centered in a sensible middle of the road: left on some issues, maybe right on some others, but more often than not right rather than wrong. And he was a patriot who showed his love of country no more vividly than by making great American music living a great American life, from drug addiction to befriending everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Graham.

He would have been the ticket for a fine celebrity president, not that he would have been fool enough to lust for the job. He was a man I felt could be trusted, a man I could respect. His qualities of both oaken solidity and all too human frailty could well be emulated by any who seek to take the job now from the false hero who serves as resident in the White House. Let's hope his passing signals not completely the end of an era and a consciousness, for it does, but also helps focus light on what it means to be an American Man in a time when true greatness seems in short supply. And surely as I know the sun rises, I believe Johnny Cash is now in his heaven with the woman he loves, and has left us the musical and personal legacy of being a Great American.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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