Johnny Cash and the Tragedy that Inspired Genius

| May 20, 2013

Anyone who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line has heard the phrase “I hate country music.” What’s interesting, though, is how often we unapologetic Yankees qualify that declaration with the addendum, “but I love me some Johnny Cash.” And how could we not? The brooding, black-clad singer bridged a stark divide that emerged in the recording industry in the 1950s, as post-Elvis pop singers diverged into two camps and audiences aligned themselves with either the sideburned rebels of rock ’n’ roll or the cowboy-hatted twangsters of country music.

Cash, if nothing else, proved that the latter genre is not just for beer-bellied good ol’ boys who adorn their pickups with busty-girl mud flaps. Everyone, from politicians to pole dancers, can appreciate Johnny Cash (no less than five U.S. presidents have declared themselves fans of the singer, and Jimmy Carter was his cousin by marriage), and it’s not just because he looked cool in black and had a baritone voice that could smolder through cast iron. Cash endures because his most well known songs— “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” among them — weave deeply personal narratives with which listeners of all stripes can effortlessly identify. In short, the guy knew how to tell a good story, a skill he may have never discovered had it not been for what is probably the most singularly traumatic childhood event out of any in this chapter.

Imagine going through life feeling responsible for the death of your own brother. Such was the deeply felt — though unearned — guilt that served as the framing device for Johnny Cash’s perpetually black core. His brother’s death occurred just as he was crossing the delicate threshold from preteen to manhood. At that time, he still went by his legal birth name, J. R., so christened because his parents, apparently, could not agree on what to call him.

One morning in May 1944, when J. R. was twelve, he set out to go fishing while his older brother Jack prepared for work at the high school agriculture shop where he had a job cutting timber. The job paid only $3 a day, but the fourteen-year-old Jack felt a strong sense of responsibility to help provide for the struggling Cash family, which included his parents, who picked cotton for a living, and six brothers and sisters. But something did not seem right on that Saturday morning. Both J. R. and Jack were overcome by a lingering sense that tragedy awaited Jack at the wood shop. It was one of those eerie premonitions that, after the fact, leave us wondering why we didn’t just trust our gut instincts. Indeed, J. R. did urge Jack to trust that gut instinct, begging his older brother to blow off work and go fishing with him instead, but Jack, a dutiful lad to a fault, opted for the more responsible choice.

Later that day, the boys’ premonition came to harrowing fruition. Jack, who was apparently working without adult supervision, lost his balance while trying to cut a board. He fell onto a giant head saw, whose whirling, jagged blade sliced him almost in half, creating a gash from his ribcage, down through his stomach, all the way to his groin. The boy did not die instantly, however. Instead, he suffered for several days in a hospital bed, and at one point even showed signs that he might actually get better, despite his doctor’s insistence that a full recovery was impossible. “I had to take out too many of his insides,” the physician told the boy’s parents. Jack died the next day.

J. R.’s feeling of guilt was exacerbated by his father, Ray, who often bluntly pointed out the irony that the hardworking Jack was killed while J. R., the good-for-nothing layabout who chose fishing over work, lived on. Ray Cash was not exactly an even-tempered sort to begin with (he once shot the family dog because it ate too many table scraps), but Jack’s death opened up a channel through which the hardened old man expressed his favoritism more viciously than ever. Ray Cash made his callous druthers entirely clear, telling J. R. flatly that it should have been he, not Jack, who died on that fateful day. Even the most stoic among us would be wounded by that, but J. R., a Baptist for whom guilt was written into his DNA, carried the burden of his brother’s death for the rest of his days.

“[He] had this real sad guilt thing about him his whole life,” Cash’s daughter Kathy once said of her father. “You could see it in his eyes. You can look at almost any picture and see this dark, sadness thing going on.”

In the months following Jack’s death, the young J. R. became obsessively fixated on the incident. In the summer of 1944, he went to Boy Scout camp and talked of nothing but Jack; however, somewhere between pitching tents and learning how to tie square knots, J. R.’s fellow scouts grew tired of hearing him drone on about his dead brother. Eventually they told him it was time to give it a rest. “I got the message,” Cash said. “I quit talking about Jack altogether. Everybody knew how I felt and how my mother felt; they didn’t need us telling them.”

Cash rarely spoke of the tragedy after that, but then it’s not the kind of thing one shrugs off either. Instead, the grieving boy entered puberty in an endless pursuit of escapist reveries, losing himself in radio dramas, westerns, and oral tales of the Old Frontier told by the various vagabonds who passed through his small Arkansas town.

These seemingly pedestrian pastimes taught J. R. something invaluable about the art of storytelling. He learned that stories have to have purpose, a core, something for listeners to grab onto. Aimless blathering, he soon realized, does not appeal to listeners’ sympathies, even if it concerns something as profound as a brother’s death. J. R.’s informal education in storytelling equipped him with skills to craft sharp, accessible narratives, a talent he used when later writing the songs that would bring him worldwide acclaim. From his first commercial hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in which the protagonist laments the trysts of his unfaithful lover, to the folk-inspired “Folsom Prison Blues,” in which a convict listens longingly to the sounds of the outside world, Cash’s songs gave a crisp structure to willfully somber topics.

The day Jack Cash died was the day the sad, soulful, brooding Johnny Cash was born. It created the heaviness of spirit that transformed him into the original Man in Black — a country star whose dark wardrobe was as much a style choice as the reflection of his perpetually dark inner being.

Adapted from Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world’s most creative minds, published by Adams Media.

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About the Author ()

Christopher Zara is a media and culture reporter for the International Business Times. His first book, Tortured Artists, was published by Adams Media this spring.

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