He Heard The Train A-Comin’: Johnny Cash at 90

Looking back on the one-of-a-kind career of The Man In Black

Johnny Cash would have turned 90 today (Image: Legacy Recordings)

Let’s face it: Your first concert was probably a piece of commercial crap.

You were probably a pre-teen or young teen. I’ve seen the self-deprecating and embarrassing posts on Facebook where people confess losing their rock and roll virginity to Journey or Loverboy or something and it was not all they could have hoped. At least, upon looking back on it. 

Mine coulda been crap, too. I’ve seen crap. But it wasn’t.

By some quirk of fate, I hit the jackpot at age 13. Johnny Cash was the first singer I ever saw in concert. It was Nov. 13, 1969, Bangor, Maine with the opening acts, the Statler Brothers and the Tennessee Three, at the Bangor Auditorium. (The Tennessee Three was also Johnny’s backing band.) Now, it wasn’t rock and roll of course, but it certainly spoke to me. While I was not what you’d call a fan of country music, I paid a lot of attention to AM radio – local and American Top 40 – and there was Johnny Cash with “A Boy Named Sue.” Rough and rowdy and rock and roll kinda fun. I’d been lovin’ the song all summer. Bought the single, played it to death.

“Sue,” of course, wasn’t typical Cash. It was a novelty song, written by (who else?) Shel Silverstein (See: Dr. Hook.) and it was funny as hell. I also liked the censorious bleep in the song. Sang Cash, anticipating a fatal confrontation with the son he named Sue, because, you know, so he’d grow up tough and learn to fight bullies that taunted him: “But you ought to thank me, before I die/For the gravel in ya gut and the spit in ya eye/’Cause I’m the [bleep] that named you Sue!” (Turned out to be “dirty mangy dog,” I’d thought it “sonofabitch.”) And, in the song, the son and the father bonded at the end. No bloodshed. All hugs. And one final joke.


VIDEO: Johnny Cash “A Boy Named Sue” on The Johnny Cash Show

That was the Johnny Cash door-opener and, as it turned out over time, Cash’s biggest single – kinda like Chuck Berry and “My Ding-a-Ling.” So, with “Sue” leading the way I bought the first of the prison albums, Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin, where I learned Johnny was an outlaw, a “Wanted Man” in every city out west (Bob Dylan wrote that one), how he kept a close watch on that heart of his (“I Walk the Line”) and how he really, really hated San Quentin (“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you!”) and hated it so much he sang it twice in a row. By audience request. Ya think it struck a chord? (Something I learned later: Cash never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, he stayed only one night on each stay.)


VIDEO: Johnny Cash “San Quentin”

Up next for me: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison – where I first heard about cocaine (“Cocaine Blues” – drug sounded alluring but dangerous) and heard another wild and wooly Silverstein gem, “25 Minutes to Go.” It’s a careening countdown song with the singer on the gallows. Last couplet: “I can see the buzzards I can hear the crows 1 more minute to go/And now I’m swingin’ and here I go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!”

One of my worst days as a rock critic was when I was on my way back from vacation in Sarasota, Florida in 1996 and we got caught in a snowstorm in Baltimore, all flights grounded, and thus unable to reach Boston, the same night I was slated to review the Rick Rubin-ized Cash for the Boston Globe. That is, Cash had recorded some stripped down, hard-edged music with the producing ace who was introducing him, in a way, to a country-punk-schooled younger audience, a club crowd, not a theater-in-the-round summer shed crowd. I was itching to be in Boston, but I watched TV in a Baltimore hotel room. 

My buddy – then Globe freelancer and now well-known author/roots-music historian Elijah Wald – got the gig and wrote admirably: “He is an icon, the Man in Black, with a face carved by nature for a place on Mount Rushmore. And despite all the hyperbole, he still seems approachable and familiar, the ordinary man writ large.”

Cash played the hits – “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” – and what I consider his greatest song of the ‘90s, “Delia’s Gone.” (The video is killer, too, with Kate Moss playing the dead Delia.) And he closed with “Sue.”


VIDEO: Johnny Cash “Delia’s Gone”

Cash, who was born 90 years ago February 26, has, of course, a rich history. The professional and personal relationship with his wife June Carter (35 years of marriage). Collaborations with Bob Dylan and Nick Lowe, covers of songs by Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Guy Clark. Of course, there were the six ‘90s/’00s albums with Rick Rubin and one with Don Was. I didn’t think Cash captured the wrenching fatalistic thrust and drama of Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat,” but he turned in the definitive version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”


VIDEO: Johnny Cash “Hurt”

I’d seen, and reviewed, Cash in 1985, where he played a show with his wife, June, and his son, John, in the band. That was at a summer shed, theater-in-the-round, the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, Massachusetts and the John-and-June show it really was a family-friendly event. Also in the band: Future country star Marty Stuart, a multi-instrumentalist who invited me back to his hotel room after the show and settled into a long, highly informative, chat about country music and its roots.

Stuart had been Cash’s guitarist for five years and he’d seen the singer on and off the wagon, but said Cash been off the pills and/or booze for 20 months. Stuart said, aptly, of Cash in concert: “John’s not slick – he’s still ragged and raw – but the edges are polished a bit more now.”

He still had that wonderful donka-donka-donka acoustic rhythm guitar sound. He played gravelly even-handed renditions of “Ring of Fire,” ‘Here Comes That Rainbow Again” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  A festive “Orange Blossom Special” and raucous “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Marty, in turned out, was a historian and massive collector of country music memorabilia. At the end of our hour, he said he had several sealed copies of Johnny’s first Sun album in his vault and would I like one. Well, sure, I said, giving him my address but assuming this might not be a promise fulfilled – like one of those “we must get together again” promises we all make.

Stupid me. Two weeks later, this pound of an LP – Johnny Cash with His White Hot and Blue Guitar – shows up on my doorstep. I immediately open it and put it on the turntable listening to “I Walk the Line” proper for the first time. My collector friends freaked because I’d diminished the value by slitting the shrink-wrap and I just laughed. I didn’t have that album to collect it or sell it. I had it to play and that’s what I did. A lotta pleasure in those deep thick grooves.



Before I’d hooked up with Stuart backstage, I’d been in a meet-and-greet line to say hi to Cash. Not my favorite thing to do, these meet-and-greets, and pretty pro forma – I much prefer actual conversations-cum-interviews, but that wasn’t in the cards here and I got it. The opportunity for a quickie was offered and how could I say no? 

I’d met a fair number of famous musicians by that point – part of the rock critic/feature writer job – and was quite comfortable in rock celebrity settings. I’d gotten on with ease. Had jabbered with Ramones and The Clash, had long hotel-room chinwags with Ray Davies and Pete Townshend under my belt.

But here, I was, well, sort of intimidated, having some nervousness, trying to think of what to say as I inched up the line toward the Man in Black. When I got there, I fumbled. I was trying to establish some connection – trying to explain my job a bit and noting that because of that I knew and had written about his daughter Rosanne and step-daughter Carlene Carter. He nodded politely and then I stumbled over some version of tale I told at the top of the story, seeing him as a kid, and then I realized basically I was taking up too much line time and we should be done. Had a firm handshake and moved on.

Which, ultimately, I think is all I needed. Just to shake hands with the man whose music had introduced me the the wonderful world of concertizing way back when, whose music I still held dear.

Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003 from complications of diabetes, just four months after his wife June passed. He was 71. I cried a bit that day.

His last words were rumored – rumored mind you – to be, “I hear a train a-comin’.” It may not be true, but it sure sounds good. 


VIDEO: Johnny Cash “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Live in Denmark)

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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