Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 229
Thurs. Oct. 03, 2013
“Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”
Do you know how Johnny Cash came up with his timelessly unorthodox genre bending Man in Black sound? According to Steve Turner’s book, The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend, “Cash claimed that the musical inspiration for “I Walk The Line” came when someone inadvertently twisted a rehearsal tape in the Wilcox-Gay tape recorder that he’d brought from the base PX. When he hit play, it sounded like religious music but what [Johnny] was actually hearing were backwards chords. “The drone and those weird chord changed stayed with me.”” For artists like Johnny there was no such thing as happy accidents. The Man in Black took those ‘weird chord changes’ as a musical sign from the heavens above. Johnny knew he was destined to sing his gospel inspired rebel songs to music fans globally. And that’s just what Cash did, recording his first few hits with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Rick Rubin, the producer of Cash’s American Recordings called The Man in Black, “an outsider, never been part of a trend. A rock star is a musical outlaw and that’s Johnny.” Even from the beginning of his career, Cash was the outlaw. He left Sun Records because Sam Phillips was more interested in his famous prodigy Elvis than fulfilling Cash’s creative wishes. After having hits with “I Walk The Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” The Man in Black believed he had enough commercial clout to record a live album at a prison. Unfortunately, Sam Phillips didn’t see it that way as Cash told producer Bob Johnston in Antonio D’Ambrosio’s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, “[Philips] told Cash he would drop him from the label, fire him and ruin his career, and that as long as he was with Sun he would never be allowed to do an album at a prison or any of these other albums that [Cash] had in mind. [Johnny] Cash was never allowed to do what he wanted. Cash had to leave Sun. It was the only choice and the right choice.”
In 1958, Cash moved to Columbia Records where his first single would be one his most famous that would eventually make in a hero in rock, metal, folk and hip hop communities—that song was “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.” “Guns” blazed up to number one on the country charts and went just as high on the pop charts. Even for his first single for Columbia, Cash was already a crossover success. With his commercial triumph, Cash eventually would see his creative aspiration become reality when Johnny would record at both Folsom and St. Quentin prisons.
Throughout his career, Cash never wavered from his goals, dreams and ambitions and because of this Johnny was a folk hero to musicians and music fans alike. Even in the modern age, Cash found an audience with grunge and hip hop audiences of the 1990s. Thanks to U2 who recruited Johnny to sing on 1993’s The Wanderer. Soon after, Rick Rubin recorded Cash with just a guitar at a cabin and because of Johnny singing with U2 and his brave acoustic based American Recordings; The Man in Black had a creative resurrection that made him a living legend all the way until his untimely passing in 2003.
In that’s same year, U2’s Edge wrote a beautiful article about Johnny Cash in Hot Press, when the guitarist eloquently described The Man in Black as, “He was big in every sense, but incredibly funny, and he had this self-deprecating quality which was very charming. He came across as somebody who’d been around and he knew— there was very little bullshit there. He was a survivor. On the inside of Rattle and Hum there’s a few portraits that were on the walls of Sun Studios when we recorded there, and Johnny is there, but he’s the one that really came through; everyone else had in one way or another fallen by the wayside, either passing away or musically drifting off into obscurity. But Johnny Cash probably went through as much down times personally as any of the others, but the fact that he came through it gave him incredible power.” The Edge is so right. What made Cash so popular to music fans from all walks of life was that he looked like you and I and he sounded like he was put on earth to sing like The Lord himself. J.C. was that righteous, he was a very pious man who believed in faith and loving all people, no matter what faith, race, sex, color or creed. A man like Johnny Cash didn’t need fists or arms, his aura was his shield and you could tell when J.C. sung he was protected from heaven above.
When asked by MTV.News if he had any advice for rappers who were under attack for singing their societal reflective yet violent lyrics, Johnny Cash said, “Ignore it. Do what you do. You can’t let people delegate to you what you should do when it’s coming from way in here [taps heart]. I wouldn’t let anybody influence me into thinking I was doing the wrong thing by singing about death, hell and drugs. ‘Cause I’ve always done that. And I always will.” Although Johnny Cash wrote songs about Guns, Murder and Death, as “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” shows, the only thing The Man in Black needed was three chords to sing his holy inspired truth.
I believe the best portrayal of Johnny Cash comes from The Edge’s same ot Press piece, when in 2003, the U2 guitarist wrote, “He really touched so many different areas of music in an extraordinary way. I mean you’ll find people who just never got Elvis because of the panto aspect, it just became a freak show of a sort, but I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t love Johnny Cash ‘cos there was something so true about what he did. He was an incredible man. Somebody said, ‘If the Grand Canyon could sing, it’d be the sound that Johnny Cash made.’ I think that sums it up.” Like the Grand Canyon, Johnny Cash was one of the seven wonders of America. Anyone who could sing like the Lord and give voice to the Grand Canyon didn’t need a gun for power or protection. J.C. was such an inspirational giant, as The Christian Century wrote in 2003, “Fans were drawn to his authenticity. His characteristic black frock coat gave him the appearance of “a 1920s circuit rider or undertaker.”
Johnny Cash was too much of a bad ass to let a bullet chamber do his talking for him. The Man in Black spoke through his songs like they were scripture. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” reflected the righteous rebel that was Johnny Cash. J.C. had a lyrical anger that The Man In Black expressed honestly; his only aim was to his music, his family and his faith. Everyone should want to be like Johnny Cash. Now that’s a life to emulate.
My favorite rendition of “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” has to be from the 1998 album VH1 Storytellers when Johnny Cash sung this classic while sharing the stage with his friend Willie Nelson. Go ahead Johnny and Willie, fire away with your magical six string guitars.