I am honored to have R.W.W. Greene guest blogging for me this week. He awes me with his talent, always makes me laugh and is just one of those people that reminds me that the human race isn't all that bad. Enjoy!
One day last month I found myself staring at a low, plastic toilet and thinking about music. The toilet used to belong to Johnny Cash, part of the plumbing system installed in the Man in Black's tour bus. The bus meant a lot to Cash. I made a special trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to see it, so I guess it means something to me, too.
“I have a home that takes me anywhere I need to go, that cradles me and comforts me, that lets me nod off in the mountains and wake up in the plains: my bus, of course.” (from Cash, the autobiography.)
Cash sold the tour bus in 2003, after wife June Carter Cash died. The two spent a lot of time on the bus, touring near constantly since they bought the thing in 1979. Cash put more than $500,000 and nearly a million miles into it, criss-crossing the country and sharing the songs he knew.
I'd like to think that at least once Cash sat on that toilet and wondered, “Shit. How'd I end up here?” and thought about the story he was telling.
Cash was born in 1932, taking his first steps while desperate men and women rebuilt their lives and dragged America up by the bootstraps at the Hoover Dam. The music Cash listened to on his family's radio rose out of that Depression-era, must-do spirit: hardscrabble, sparse tunes with lyrics that moaned in pain, sprawled in the dust, and left everything behind in search of something better. One of Cash's favorite acts was the Carter Family, a musical clan he eventually married into. The Carters sang a lot of songs about hard times, harder work, and looking on the “brighter side of life.”
Cash and his contemporaries – Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. – are the last generation of musicians to carry the spirit of those times forward. They were born at the end of the bad times, but they grew up steeped in the tales and the music of want and the working man. They heard the story second-hand, unlike Woody Guthrie who lived and wrote every day of it, but for a long time their music was the closest the American public could get to being there.
Cash died in 2003, Waylon Jennings in 2002, Orbison in '88, Elvis died on a toilet in Graceland in '77. Only a few bold, old men are left to tell those stories to the so-called Millennial generation, and I'm not sure the Gen Xers were paying attention when their time came to hear the tale. Who's left to make us feel the grit of the Dust Bowl and hear the scrape of the shovels at the big dam projects? You could argue that rockers like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp are trying, but they heard the story third-hand at best. Their version of the tale may rock, but it's garbled. Lady Gaga, awesome as she is, likely hasn't heard it at all. Jamey Johnson? Maybe.
It's too important a story to let fade. We need to be reminded that there was a time when America was down on its luck, knocked on its collective ass, but managed to stand up stronger. It sounds like a story we could stand to hear now. (You hear that, Kelly Gamble? We're at a point where we NEED to hear that story you're telling. )
Could we do it again? Do we have the power to stand up and be better? We're good at occupying and organizing, tweeting and bitching, but could we lose it all and spend years of our lives busting rocks and digging holes to build a new world? We did once; maybe folks just need to hear about how it all worked, how it felt.
“They're powerful, those songs. At times they've been my only way back, the only door out of the dark, bad places the black dog calls home.” (Cash, 2003)
The new tour, a million miles back and forth across the nation, could start here. Kelly's got a book. I know a few tunes on the guitar. Anyone have a bus we could borrow?
– R.W.W. Greene is an English teacher, former journalist, and practicing (much practicing) fiction writer. Follow his exploits at rwwgreene.com and follow him on twitter @rwwgreene