Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

Forget the 'country' tag
Johnny Cash was one of the greatest American singers of any style

BasieIn tributes written following Johnny Cash's death last week, we've been told over and again how he was one of the greatest country singers in history. Of how he re-shaped country-western music. Of how he left his imprint on Nashville for all time.

All of which sells him short. Very short.

For Cash belongs in the same pantheon as Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Leonard Bernstein – as one of the handful of artists who shaped American music in the 20th century.

Cash's impact on American music far transcends the country label, just as Ellington's influence was felt far beyond the realm of jazz.

Yet unlike comparable 20th century American musical giants – Bing Crosby or Ella Fitzgerald or Aaron Copland or any of the above artists, say – Cash rarely was so acknowledged by critics or academics.

In fact, country music as a whole is rarely accorded the same respect that jazz receives; in an interview in the late 1980s, Ricky Skaggs made the point, saying "Country and western is ignored by the intellectuals. They don't look at it as an art form. They think it's just somebody sitting on his couch singing about his life."

Perhaps in death, Cash can force a reappraisal of that popular outlook. For in both composition and performance, Cash was the equal of anyone in any style, and as his life's work is revisited in coming years, it is likely to become clear just how vast his impact was, how large his musical vision.

Like Sinatra, Cash was possessed of a limited voice – and turned it into his greatest strength. While Sinatra's forte was capturing the pain of lost love, Cash's was in conveying – with equal passion – the heartbreak of broken dreams.

In fact, in many ways, Cash and Sinatra were the bookends of American popular music – Sinatra providing the voice of the savvy street-tough urban centers, and Cash that of the blue-collar rural areas.

The measure of how dramatically each succeeded in distilling those different essences of the American spirit can be found in how far their fame and influence spread. For the deaths of both men were lead stories around the world – Cash's passing was atop the BBC news page out of London.

What that indicates is that Johnny Cash may have been born in America, may have captured what it means to be American as well as anyone ever did in song – but he didn't belong only to us.

His talent was too immense to be contained by one nation, his genius too universal to be limited by borders on a map.

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