Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

by Leigh Edwards

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Throughout his career, Johnny Cash has been depicted — and has depicted himself — as a walking contradiction: social protestor and establishment patriot, drugged wildman and devout Christian crusader, rebel outlaw hillbilly thug and elder statesman. Leigh H. Edwards explores the allure of this paradoxical image and its cultural significance. She argues that Cash embodies irresolvable contradictions of American identity that reflect foundational issues in the American experience, such as the tensions between freedom and patriotism, individual rights and nationalism, the sacred and the profane. She illustrates how this model of ambivalence is a vital paradigm for American popular music, and for American identity in general. Making use of sources such as Cash's autobiographies, lyrics, music, liner notes, and interviews, Edwards pays equal attention to depictions of Cash by others, such as Vivian Cash's publication of his letters to her, documentaries and music journalism about him, Walk the Line, and fan club materials found in the archives at the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, to create a full portrait of Cash and his significance as a cultural icon.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253003171
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/25/2009
Series: Profiles in Popular Music
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 393 KB

About the Author

Leigh H. Edwards is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity

By Leigh H. Edwards

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Leigh H. Edwards
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35292-7



Authenticity and Persona

I have been arguing that, in Cash, a large part of what counts as his projected "authenticity" is the image that he is a walking contradiction with respect to the different components of his performance. Precisely because his incongruities are what he and others portray as authentic in him, Cash is instructive in debates about the creation of authenticity in music and, consequently, in discussions of how country music formulates race, gender, and a Southern white working-class culture. In this chapter I question how Cash's oeuvre elucidates such debates, as I examine Cash's self-representation and others' accounts of him to determine how they establish that his contradictory persona is authentic. I detail how he stages his version of the market-versus-purity conflict and how his struggles over this tension speak to the political economy of the Nashville music industry. Concluding with an extended close reading of Cash's Hurt video (2002), I demonstrate how a nexus of authenticity issues becomes evident in his texts.

Cash's work is emblematic of the complexity in the country music genre that scholars must address. In calling for more attention to these complications, Barbara Ching has noted the problems with reifying country music's construction of simplicity, the dangers of trying to make the genre transparently stand for traditional virtues or a "simpler" life. The complexity of Cash's work concerns, in particular, popular music's love affair with that hotly contested, endlessly debunked fantasy of what is authentic-meaning what is genuine. Theorists have long argued that authenticity is a construct of ideas and values reflecting specific socio-historical contexts of production and reception; thus audiences and record companies might deem artists or their music authentic because they seem to convey honesty, truth, and an organic relationship to their roots or fan base. Country music has been described as a genre of sincerity. Yet one person's authentic favorite singer-songwriter is another person's manufactured country-pop star. The idea of authenticity involves various beliefs about taste, values, identity, and models of artistic creation. It is an arbitrary, constantly changing concept. By exploring what it means in specific instances, we can show what such ideas reflect about U.S. culture (as Richard Peterson has done for the institutional history of country music and as other scholars have done for specific country movements and stars).

Cash's career illustrates what scholars have identified as the dialectical nature of authenticity narratives, because such narratives can frequently mean negotiating between seemingly opposed but actually interrelated ideas. As noted in the introduction, scholars in the field have detailed country music's familiar meta-narratives of a perceived opposition between market pressure and a nostalgic idea of purity, which may seem figured as the opposition between manufactured polish and hard-living roughness. In what Aaron Fox has called country's meta-narrative of "loss and desire," the genre stages the loss of a supposedly purer past, idealized as somehow counter to the market or commodity culture, bemoaning the falling away of traditional agrarian society in the face of urbanization and industrialization. Yet country music articulates both parts of that dichotomy, the pull of the past and the longings of the market. In these paradigms we see a fluctuation between different imagined models of authenticity prevailing in various socio-historical contexts, as they coexist, compete, and evolve over time. Cash embodies both sides of cultural binaries. Thus, he can, for example, further illuminate the kinds of internal critiques of authenticity Ching has identified in country music.

Cash's variable image aptly addresses some of the dominant paradigms for authenticity in the genre, and he can add another difficult wrinkle to some of these tropes. Related to the market-purity dichotomy, for example, other key meta-narratives involve identifying a binary of stylistic differences that often take on gendered stereotypes. In Richard Peterson's "hard-core" versus "soft-shell" country dialectic, the "pure" roots of traditional country (Hank Williams) oppose the more "pop" or market-oriented form such as the Nashville Sound and its descendants (Jim Reeves). Historians have noted how the "founding moment" of commercial country music, the 1927 Bristol sessions, generated two different paradigms of "authenticity": the Carter Family's home, family, and domesticity-focused traditional music (which they advertised as "morally good") versus Jimmie Rodgers's rambler, genre-crossing music.

In this example, the careful fashioning of authenticity is readily evident. The Carter Family's "home" narrative is particularly striking for its extensive fabrication. The original trio (AT. [Alvin Pleasant], his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle) skillfully marketed an image of familial bliss, using their life stories as part of their public personae to become a symbol of the American family and domesticity. They were even scheduled to appear as such on the cover of Life magazine in 1941, although the onset of war changed editorial plans and the story never appeared. Yet the appearance of domestic tranquility was far from the reality. Beneath the semblance of family-values music we find something far more typical — blended, broken, dysfunctional, and nontraditional family arrangements. The married couple at the center of the act was estranged for much of their career. Sara actually left A.P. and their children in 1933 and went to live with her family. Her children describe her as a forward-thinking proto-feminist known to break gender taboos of the time by wearing pants and smoking. Granddaughter Rita says: "my grandmother was probably liberated before people knew the term, certainly for women in this area." Sara and A.P. divorced in 1936 but continued to record and perform together, maintaining a carefully managed public image until 1943. In spite of A.P.'s efforts to reunite with her, Sara instead began an affair with A.P.'s cousin, Coy Bays. Although their families kept them apart and exiled Bays to California, she ultimately reunited with him through a Carter Family performance, throwing the artificiality of the act's familial image into stark relief. In 1938 the group was in Texas to perform on powerful border radio station XERA, earning them vast exposure. When introducing their song "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," Sara dedicated it to Bays. He heard her on the radio, drove all night from California to Texas to reach her, and they were married three weeks later. In biographical narratives of the convoluted family ties, many accounts focus on the continued estrangement of A.P. and Sara and his bitterness at their divorce. Even given the strains beneath their public image of domestic harmony, the Carter Family managed to pitch an image of home-centered bliss and lend it staying power, achieving a definitive influence on country music notions of purity.

Cash illuminates the shaping of such domestic tropes in country music, and he more fully embodies the interplay of stylistic dialectics. He is knotty in some of these narratives. Cash actively helped to keep the music of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers alive, laying claim to competing authenticities at times, the family patriarch as well as the rambler. Cash's road shows featured, in equal parts, home-themed music backed by the angelic oohs and aahs of the Carter Family, and genre-bending rambler and railroad songs in the style of Rodgers. After the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943, later versions comprised of different group members and their children continued to play. Mother Maybelle toured with her version of the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, consisting of her and her daughters Helen, Anita, and June) with Cash into the 1960s, and Carter family members, in addition to his wife June Carter, continued to sing with him after that time. Cash also frequently performed Jimmie Rodgers songs and was often compared to him. Cash went so far as to attempt a Rodgers tribute at his 1962 Carnegie Hall concert. He emerged for one segment dressed in railroad gear as Rodgers the Singing Brakeman to perform Rodgers songs, but his New York audience for the most part did not recognize nor understand his reference (and the hoarse, drug-addled, incoherent performance he gave that night did not help his efforts). Not only did he embrace both the Carter Family and Rodgers performance modes, but Cash also merged the family patriarch and the rambler in his projected image. While he and June Carter became like the second generation of the First Family of Country Music, he also maintained his outlaw persona, not least because they infamously became involved while both were married to other people and suffered public disapproval because of it.

Cash similarly illuminates the dialectical movement of other authenticity paradigms. For Ching, what she identifies as the subgenre of "hard country" critiques a projected authenticity in the sense that it responds to how a tourist's gaze might patronizingly frame a kind of abject "redneck" country image as "authentic." It expresses white working-class masculine frustration at disempowerment and claims an abject position in relation to the dominant, mainstream, middle-class bourgeois culture that ridicules it. Yet hard country also rejects this elitist putdown. Cash's performance both fits with and departs from this rubric. Ching, in arguing for a difference between mainstream, pop-oriented country and "hard country," notes Cash in passing as a hard country star in that his Man in Black persona "evokes bad boys and mourners." At the same time she observes that his "Man in Black" song confuses that picture, because Cash "righteously claims that his outfit signifies his mourning for the world's downtrodden." Cash often voices working-class frustration in songs like "Country Trash," where he sings: "But we'll all be equal when we're under the grass / And God's got a heaven for country trash." Yet his Man in Black persona clearly attempts to move beyond a restrictive version of white working-class masculinity (or associated stereotypes of sexism, racism, and violence) to engage in cross-racial class bonding as well as to express solidarity for various social movements, including the Civil Rights movement and antiwar protests.

The question of market versus purity in Cash is likewise exacting. He explicitly advocated certain anti-market constructions of authenticity. In one instance, he made it clear that he subscribed to some version of authenticity because when he felt threatened by market pressures at Columbia, he satirized his own image. In the mid-1980s, when he thought Columbia was trying to abandon him or get him to "sell out" and overproduce or water down his sound, he turned to burlesque. He recorded "Chicken in Black" (1984), a song parodying his image, in which the lyrics have his brain being transplanted to a chicken; Cash made a video for it featuring him dressed in a mock superhero costume, and the song actually became a modest hit, perhaps reflecting his audience's receptivity to his self-parody.

At the same time, however, Cash resisted efforts to script him into certain versions of authenticity. In one song, "I'll Say It's True" (1979), he satirizes press efforts to pin him down as well as all the false mythologies that circulate about him. In his lyrics, Cash dispels myths by singing "I've never been in prison," denying much knowledge about trains, noting that his Indian heritage claims came from "years ago," implying that he no longer makes those claims, and then establishing paradoxes for himself, noting that he loves New York City as well as the country, palatial homes as well as modest shacks; he says he will "let them old tales all stay twisted" but he will "set 'em straight" about his love for "his woman." Cash the speaker expresses his weariness at all the same old questions, all the efforts to insist on certain versions of genuineness or to defrock his inability to live up to them, the criticisms of his mixture of wealth and folksiness, or his own identity formulations. As the press circulates endless stories about him, generating warped mythologies, he will only go on the record about his affection for "his woman."

Elsewhere, Cash explicitly pondered the question of authenticity in country music in a way that underlines the inevitable dialectic between the market and ideas of purity. In his second autobiography, when decrying how the country music establishment sometimes ostracized or abandoned him, dubbing him "not country," Cash slams commercialized, prepackaged "hat acts" that use props and turn the agrarian lifestyle that "country" music originally referenced into an empty fashion style. But as he engages in nostalgia for the agricultural roots of the music, he also wonders if market forces can produce the same feeling, and he leaves the question as an open one. Critiquing the country industry's production and marketing practices, Cash writes that "huge swatches of the blues and country music do after all come from the cotton fields in a very real way" and wonders if a sense of the country life has been abandoned for symbolic commodities:

Country life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being "country," they don't mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They're talking more about choices — a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own. Which begs a question: Is there anything behind the symbols of modern "country," or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pickup trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that's left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life? Maybe that's okay. I don't know.

Here Cash contemplates whether the materiality of rural experiences that produced a collective sense of cultural expression will lose something in the translation into a commodified style and musical taste, yet he notes that this process is inevitable with historical change.

Cash's own music and its industrial context and reception here become a way to ponder that very process of social change — they become part of a historical discourse, particularly for audiences that might use his mass-marketed music to create their own sense of self-expression or identity. Obviously, while Cash's music and image are different from "hat acts," they are also mass-marketed and carefully constructed. Barry Shank notes that the market and authenticity have always functioned together in twentieth-century popular music, just as listeners re-create their own sense of self from the products of the culture industry.

Cash's meditation on the sense of losing the past is essential to this dynamic. He sings nostalgically about rural life in songs like "Country Boy" (1957): "You gotta cut the weeds, you got to plant the seeds / ... / But when it's quittin' time and your work is through / There's a lotta life in you." He concludes to the country boy, perhaps his earlier self, that "I wish I was you and you was me." But the way of life he is nostalgic for can no longer exist precisely because of the economic conditions that make his mass-marketed song possible. Analyzing how popular culture responds to the ruptures of modernity, George Lipsitz has argued that historical discourse emerges as a way to provide a sense of continuity and memory in the face of modernity's break with the past, just as postwar mass culture fixates on the very loss it accelerates. As a hopeful Lipsitz argues, while mass media turns art into a commodity, which distorts and obscures artistic messages and contexts, it nevertheless can also indirectly provide meaningful connections to the past.


Excerpted from Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity by Leigh H. Edwards. Copyright © 2009 Leigh H. Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Cash as Contradiction
1. "What Is Truth?" Authenticity and Persona
2. "A Boy Named Sue": American Manhood
3. Gender and "The Beast in Me": Ramblers and Rockabillies
4. Race and Identity Politics
5. Man in Black: Class and National Mythologies
6. The Gospel Road: Cash as Saint and Sinner
Conclusion: "God's Gonna Cut You Down": Cultural Legacies
Works Cited

What People are Saying About This

Editor of Literary Cash: Unauthorized Writings Inspired by the Legendary Johnny Cash - Bob Batchelor

Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity is a tour de force of scholarship, analysis, and insight into the myth and meaning of The Man in Black. Given the relative paucity of academic investigation of Cash, the label 'definitive' carries a heavy burden. However, Leigh Edwards’ book will stand as the go-to source for understanding Cash’s transformation from popular singer to popular culture icon well into the foreseeable future. Displaying deft research skills, Edwards weaves numerous sources into a lucid account of Cash’s many roles, pulled together in an eminently readable account that will delight the singer’s millions of fans, as well as the growing scholarship on country music and its significance in American popular culture.

author of Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention - Toby Miller

The Man in Black embodied many of the contradictions that dot the American landscape. In this bold new study, Leigh Edwards explains how time, place, talent, and manhood made his legend.

University of Salford - Dave Sanjek

Leigh Edwards authoritatively illustrates the many hues that made up the far from monochromatic personality of the Man in Black. She engages passionately with Johnny Cash’s complexities and never allows her affection for the performer to plough under the conflicting impulses that generated the singer’s sometimes baffling but always commanding body of music.

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