Johnny Cash was a street poet who used his extraordinary songwriting skills to bring stories to life from the perspective of those who society usually ignores. He was a blue-collar champion of the ordinary men and women who are the lifeblood of America, and Cash poignantly showed there was a place in popular music for their tales.
Perhaps the best summarisation of Cash’s magnificence was by Bob Dylan, who wrote after his death in 2003: “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him – the greatest of the greats then and now. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English”. He added: “I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.”
Cash suffered plenty of jubilant highs throughout his recording career, but it was a tumultuous ride full of just as many troughs as peaks. In the 1980s, he suffered a fall from grace as his popularity inexplicably dwindled before Rick Rubin masterminded the mother of all comebacks in 1994 with American Recordings. In 1982, when many people wrote Cash off as yesterday’s news, he was the subject of CBS’ 60 Minutes programme. At one point during the broadcast, reporter Harry Reasoner asks the country singer about his favourite song from his repertoire, and Cash’s answer is a rarity that will surprise readers.
“I think I probably should say ‘I Walk the Line,’ because it was my biggest seller, but the one that really means more to me that says it more for me and my life, I think, is ‘Pickin’ Time,’” Cash told the programme. “The message of the song is good times coming for us all- pickin’ time.” Pickin’ Time’ is a track from his second studio album, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, which wasn’t even elected to be a single. Yet it embodies everything Johnny Cash represented as a songwriter. The narrator might not be rich financially and works a tough manual labour job, but he’s got a loving family, which is all that matters.
Cash sings on the track: “I got cotton in the bottom land, It’s up and growin’ and I got a good stand, My good wife and them kids of mine, Gonna get new shoes, come pickin’ time, Get new shoes come pickin’ time, Ev’ry night when I go to bed, I thank the Lord that my kids are fed, They live on beans eight days and nine, But I get ’em fat come pickin’ time, Get ’em fat come pickin’ time”.