Saturday, September 12, 2009

Johnny Cash remembered...

Today (September 12) marks the sixth anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash. (More information and Cash links may be found at Wikipedia by clicking HERE.) 
Over the years, Cash performed in Duluth often. He appeared in the Duluth Denfeld High School Auditorium, Duluth National Guard Armory (site of so many other stars passing through town–including famed Buddy Holly in his last days) and at the DECC. I had the pleasure of reviewing Cash in concert along with his wife, June Carter Cash, and members of her singing family during a performance at the DECC in the 70's. It was a magical evening and I'll never forget it. 
The following is a reprint of my Duluth News Tribune column just following his death and recounting my experiences as a reviewer of this concert. This writing is also included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, in a chapter that includes a few of the famous personalities I came in contact with during my newspaper career.

Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash on the Barrelhead...
by Jim Heffernan 
     I am not a big fan of “country” music in general, although Cash, who died September 12 at age 71, seemed to be broader than just country or country-rock. Really, he was mostly Johnny Cash, and nobody else was like him.
     Fairly early in adult life, I became a classical music snob. After detours into Elvis (he arrived on the scene when I was in high school) and a brief fondness for folk music during college years, I settled into insufferable musical snobbery with almost exclusive interest in classical music.
     So while many of my peers were buying records featuring the popular performers of the day, I collected Beethoven symphonies and the works of other classical composers. Couldn't help it; I loved their sound. Still do.
     I totally misjudged the Beatles–they're way better than I thought they were when I first ignored them. Bob Dylan? With that voice? I don't think so. Luciano Pavarotti–now that was a voice.
     My musical tastes were–and generally are–what most people regard as stuffy. But there's a saying–attributed to several people–that goes, “There are just two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” It took me a long time to realize that, and Johnny Cash helped.
     Circa 1970 I was city editor of the News Tribune, and Cash 's show was booked into the Duluth Arena (it wasn't called the DECC in those days) on a Sunday night. My boss, Managing Editor Jack Fein, approached me a few days before the concert and begged me to review it.
     I told Fein I was strictly classical, but he pleaded. He had nobody else (who wouldn't demand overtime pay). So I took the two reviewer ducats and that Sunday night my wife and I went to the Johnny Cash show, somewhat reluctantly.
     It was a revelation. Of course I'd heard Cash 's big hits over the years on TV or radio. You couldn't be alive in America without being aware of gravelly voiced Cash and his music.
     On stage with him were his wife, June Carter, her sisters and their mother, Maybelle, legends themselves as The Carter Family, together with a host of backup musicians, including Carl Perkins–a legendary performer in his own right. And topping off the bill was the Statler Brothers quartet (“Flowers on the Wall,” “Class of ‘57,” “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?”).
     It was all wonderful, captivating, at times moving. You couldn't help but get caught up in it. The genial Cash, clad in his trademark black outfit (which the New York Times described as “cowboy undertaker”) was generous with himself and the other performers.
     Cash had appeared in Duluth many times before, including at the Duluth armory in his early days. Maybe he's been back since–I don't know. But that night 30-some years ago, when he was in his prime and he had what seemed like the whole pantheon of country music royalty with him, was pure magic.
     It helped to alter my attitudes toward music–broaden them. Surely this man, who reached so many people, was as much an artist as the composers and performers I had embraced.
     There are only two kinds of music. Johnny Cash, who couldn't read notes, made good music. So did Luciano Pavarotti, who also is reputed to be fuzzy about note reading.

Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, September 21, 2003
Subsequently appeared in Cooler Near the Lake: Fifty-two Favorites from Thirty-four Years of Deadlines (November, 2008) by Jim Heffernan

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