Should I be worried? My very French husband has recently become enthralled with Johnny Cash. So far, he’s not dressing in black, but he is listening to the music all the time, staring off into space and looking soulful. Mr. Cash’s work is virtually unknown in France, and no one even knew who he was until the excellent film, Walk the Line, came to Europe. That’s how my husband heard about him. Like me, he was surprised to find out that the actors actually sang on the soundtrack, and that they weren’t dubbed over with original recordings. Good as they were, he wanted to hear the originals, so he ran to his computer and started downloading ballads like “Sam Hall” and “Damn Your Eyes.” He likes that many of the songs tell simple, often sad stories about regular people; he says that in that way, Cash’s songs remind him of French singer-poets like Georges Brassens.
That made me think. I wonder how many people have ever compared Johnny Cash with Georges Brassens, for one. It also made me think about some of my own biases about country music. Here was someone who didn’t know anything about the genre (virtually unheard of over here), or have any political/ideological associations with the music or the people who generally listen to it—he was just responding to what he was listening to. My associations with Johnny Cash have to do with hazy memories of his old TV show, and cliché notions about the country music scene. Then my husband downloaded a few songs from Cash’s last albums, like “Hurt,” and “When the Man Comes Around,” which pretty much blew me away.
It’s surprising how much you can learn about your own country by living somewhere else, or by seeing it through someone else’s eyes. It’s like seeing a painting from a distance, where you don’t obsess so much about the details but take in the overall composition, the gestalt of the thing. Gets the hairy cobwebs out of one’s eyes. Of course, what you see isn’t always so great. But occasionally it’s a lot better than you thought it was. I guess I shouldn’t worry too much about the Johnny Cash obsession, even if my son and I are getting tired of hearing endless re-runs of “Ring of Fire.” Maybe its time to try Willie Nelson?