Thursday, September 22, 2022

Colin Woodward's "Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash"

Colin Woodward is an archivist who holds a PhD in history from Louisiana State University. He is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War and the host of the American Rambler history and pop-culture podcast.

Woodward applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Cash and his bandmates soon realized they couldn’t function as three acoustic guitar players. Cash’s strengths as a singer was never questioned, but he was the one who ended up with the acoustic. Grant picked up the bass, while Perkins got hold of an electric guitar. None of the men had any musical training to speak of. Even so, Cash and the Tennessee Two made the most of their limitations. What is amazing is that men in their mid-twenties—with day jobs and wives, and no musical training or understanding of show business—pursued music as seriously as they did. Becoming proficient on guitar is no easy feat, especially without lessons. As a guitarist, Cash kept to strumming and picking. Grant set himself to learning the upright bass, on which he attached pieces of tape so he could follow the notes on the fret board. The difference between upright and electric bass, Peter Cooper has written, is “like driving a tank and flying a plane.” Marshall eventually became adept at both.

As the group’s sole electric guitarist, Perkins had the most difficult task of all three musicians in providing riffs and lead lines that gave shape to Cash’s songs. Perkins painstakingly worked out his lead parts, note for note. His playing was primitive compared to the guitar wizards of the late 1960s and 1970s. Even by 1950s standards, though, Cash and the Tennessee Two could not have kept up with contemporaries such as the Pennsylvania-based Bill Haley and the Comets. The solo on “Rock around the Clock” remains one of the best guitar breaks of all time. The Tennessee two couldn’t play like the Comets. Still, as a guitarist, Luther had one essential virtue: he was distinctive. And people—not least among them Perkins’s later replacement, Bob Wootton—admired and emulated him. Luther might have been limited, but the stripped-down Sun style became the gold standard for rockabilly. Many of the most successful and revered bands, from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles eschew extended instrumental breaks. They took lessons from what Cash, Perkins, and others at Sun did: say it well in a song and do it under three minutes. What Cash and the Tennessee Two created was “boom-chicka-boom” or the “Cash sound.”
I’m lucky in that page 99 of my book gives a good idea of what Country Boy is about. It talks about Cash getting his start in Memphis in the mid-50s. Despite the fact that he and his bandmates—the Tennessee Two—were not trained musicians, they were talented, persistent, and lucky enough to be born in a time when an unknown singer with no credits could walk into a studio (not just any studio, but Sam Phillips’s Sun Records, where Elvis got a start) and get an audition. One could say that the book really begins on page 99. Here, we see Cash coming up with his signature “boom-chicka-boom” sound.

What’s more, the fact that Cash was limited musically kept him more rooted than I think it would have if he was a proficient guitar player. In his voice and playing there was an honesty. Proficient players can make great music, too, but Cash was playing in the country tradition, which depended on “three chords and the truth.” We see him approach songwriting like this again and again in the manner of his heroes like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. And for many Cash fans, his work at Sun was the best music he ever recorded. On page 99, we see Cash becoming Cash the musician. I wanted to delve into that moment and the process when thing really came together for him.

More than any other book, Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash goes into Cash’s early life and what made him who he was. Musicians, no matter how well known or obscure, come from somewhere. And Cash’s story growing up in Arkansas during the Great Depression is a fascinating one. Many roots musicians aren’t really connected to the place where their music came from. But Cash’s music emerged from the South where he was born and raised. He drew on blues, gospel, folk, pop, and country to make his distinctive music. For him, Arkansas wasn’t just a place he left once he began his career. He returned often over the years, not just to visit family, hunt, and fish, but play memorable concerts. My book uses Cash’s days in Arkansas to tell his larger story.

Cash never forgot where he came from. Despite the personal and drug problems he had later in life, Arkansas kept him rooted. In his mind, he never really left it.
Visit Colin Woodward's website.

--Marshal Zeringue