Short Essays on Favorite Songs, Inspired by Nick Hornby’s Songbook
To celebrate the release of Nick Hornby’s Songbook, several authors wrote in about their favorite songs.
The Church of Johnny Cash.
Maybe it is because I was raised with no religion, making all things gospel somewhat fascinating from a faraway doctrinal stand point, or maybe it is because I love a good story, and there is absolutely no one who can tell a story like Johnny Cash, but “The Man Comes Around,” the first song on the new Johnny Cash album of the same name, just might be the best song I have ever heard in my entire life.
The song begins with Johnny Cash reading from the Bible, which is what, so the story goes, inspired the song. Cash, apparently, had a dream in which he was talking to Queen Elizabeth II and she accused him of being “a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” When Cash woke up he was intrigued by the Queen’s words, so he checked his Bible and found that they were from the Book of Job. Unable shake the dream from his head, Cash began writing a song loosely based on the Bible passages he read as a result of the dream. Seven years later, the song emerged as “The Man Comes Around,” which, lifting verses directly from the Book of Revelations, is arguably the most outwardly gospel tune Cash has ever written.
Now, as I said before, I was raised completely devoid of any sort of religious sway. This means that I am fairly uneducated about the Bible and, thusly, unimpressed by it. And, though I have only a vague notion of the biblical story about which Johnny Cash is singing, and no pressing interest, I can’t help but love this song. When Johnny Cash sings about the whirlwind in the thorn tree and a hundred million angels singing and the righteous and the filthy, well, he may as well be singing about sandwiches and pants for all the significance it holds in my mind. What makes this song so amazing to me is not what Cash is saying specifically, but how he says it.
When Cash seems like he is quoting specific passages of scripture, his voice is strong and his guitar minimal. Then, when it sounds like he is singing about his own interpretation of those passages, a second guitar appears, filling out the sound, and a solemn piano joins in, banging out notes like a death march. And then the chorus comes around and it sounds just like Cash is caught in the very windstorm of which he is speaking and all he can do to keep himself from disappearing is play the guitar a little faster and bellow in that deep, wonderful baritone voice of his, which, as the chorus progresses, goes from worry to stoic reassurance. I’m sure this transformation is probably related to something somewhere in the lyrics of the song, but, as I said, I can’t dig too much for fear of my brain getting stuck on something like that line about the chickens being gathered, and I just know I will end up bewildered.)
It might say something about me that I am fascinated by Johnny Cash’s dedication to his religion, but care very little about my own religious standing. But, after hearing this song, the song that I listen to every night before I go to bed and first thing every morning when I wake up, the song that made me pick up my guitar and play it so hard that I woke up the next morning with no feeling in the fingertips of my left hand, I know that if there was a religion based on the guitar, the words, and voice of the man who is Johnny Cash, I would write a thousand songs about it.
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