You know Johnny Cash, even if you've never listened to his music. Johnny Cash is a song about a hardscrabble life, a life rich in passion but poor in material advantage. Johnny Cash is going to the gallows rather than betraying your lover, or maybe running from the law because you actually did murder her when you caught her with another man. Johnny Cash sang about the Cocaine Blues and shooting a man just to watch him die. Johnny Cash was gangsta back in the day when hillbilly music was gangsta. The driving throb of his music and the horrific stories in his lyrics were as gangsta as anything to come after him.
I remember a time when little old ladies with blue hair listened to Johnny Cash on Sundays after church. I used to wonder at the disconnect, but nowadays I think playing Johnny Cash records was the only way those proper ladies could scratch a certain kind of itch.
Back in college I roomed with a black kid from South Los Angeles. We battled over the musical choices for our room, settling into a peculiar alternating pattern of hillbilly and hiphop. My old roommate and I are still friends, emailing one another occasionally from very different parts of the world. I never came to love his favorite music; I only came to appreciate it.
Beneath the different rhythm and slang used by the two genres, both the hillbilly music and the hiphop were about a hardscrabble life, a life rich in passion but poor in material advantages. I could relate to both versions of the tale, even if my own upbringing made Johnny Cash's way of telling the story resonate with me more. I don't think I'll be going to my local movieplex to see Straight Outta Compton, but I hope my friend from college enjoys it.
I appreciated the similarity between those old Johnny Cash songs and the rap music enough to briefly wonder why the latter was excoriated by politicians and preachers alike over the years. Of course, I only had to wonder briefly. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black, not a Black Man. That made all the difference.