Get ready for tribute songs to the Man in Black.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 17 2003 1:18 PM

Johnny Cash on Demand

Get ready for tribute songs to the Man in Black. Lots of them.

A fitting subject for a country tradition
A fitting subject for a country tradition

Because Johnny Cash was a remarkable popular artist who inspired many listeners with his voice, his compositions, and his character, his death last week will inspire tributes. Because he was a country music icon, his death will inspire tribute songs.

To be sure, country has no monopoly on this sometimes moving, sometimes schmaltzy, sometimes crass genre. Ronnie McDowell recorded "The King Is Gone" the day after Elvis Presley's death, and it's been followed by 202 more Elvis tributes, according to New York DJ Peter Bochan, who lists them on his Web site. (He unaccountably leaves out George Jones' "The King Is Gone [and So Are You].") If there's a "Rock and Roll Heaven," the Righteous Brothers memorably noted, "you know they've got a hell of a band." George Harrison sang about John Lennon in "All Those Years Ago," and Ringo Starr in turn recorded "Never Without You" about George. The Commodores' "Night Shift" honors the estimable lineup of fallen soul singers, and Tupac Shakur has been mourned in Master P's "Is There a Heaven 4 a Gangsta?," Richie Rich's "Do G's Go to Heaven?," and Naughty By Nature's "Mourn Till I Join Ya," which observes, "Nigga I miss ya this thug gonna miss ya till I'm witcha."

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But the tribute song plays a crucial role in country, which is the most self-conscious genre of American pop music. In second place is the style with which you'd think it would have zero in common: hip-hop. Both forms are far more than the sum of their lyrical and instrumental conventions; they are, in fact, a big part of performers' and listeners' self-definition. Explicitly autobiographical references, references to other performers or other songs, and statements about the genre itself are badges of authenticity.

Country—feeling itself to be under attack from crossover artists, New York lawyers, and developers who want to pave over Grandpa's back 40—can seem almost obsessive in defining what it is and what it is not, as in "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," "When You're Looking at Me, You're Looking at Country," "Country Till I Die," "Kindly Keep It Country," "If That Ain't Country," " Now That's Country," "If There Was No Country Music," "Don't Think You're Too Good For Country Music," etc. The biggest theme in recent years is, in the words of a Travis Tritt song, "Country Ain't Country"—that is, that the purity of the music has been corrupted and the survivors of a more authentic Golden Age, such as Johnny Cash, have been banished from the airwaves in favor of the likes of Shania Twain. The Dixie Chicks' recent hit "Long Time Gone" complains of the current Nashville sound, "the music ain't got no soul./ Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard,/ They've got money but they don't have Cash."

Country singers are always defining, narrating, defending, or mythologizing their own lives; again, the only competition is hip-hop. A 1950s Kitty Wells hit was "The Life They Live in Songs," and in both country and hip-hop, performers generously present themselves to fans in personas that are bigger than life, but still truthfully reflect their inner and outer selves. Johnny Cash explained his wardrobe (and gave himself an indelible nickname) in the 1971 song "The Man in Black": among other reasons, "I wear it for the thousands who have died,/ Believin' that the Lord was on their side." The cheerier "Luther Played the Boogie" tells the story of his first days as a touring musician, with Luther Perkins on guitar: "Well, we did our best to entertain everywhere we'd go./ We'd nearly wear our fingers off to give the folks a show." "Songs That Make a Difference," recorded with the Highwaymen, remembers jam sessions, "back in 1969," with "Shel [Silverstein] and Kris [Kristofferson] and Dylan, and a couple off the street."

Waylon Jennings, who wrote "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand?," went in for this kind of thing a lot, as does Willie Nelson. Every couple of years George Jones puts out a song that has some fun with his own image, including "I Don't Need Your Rocking Chair" and "(They Call Me) No-Show Jones." In the late '70s and early '80s, Hank Williams Jr. issued a brilliant series of songs—including "Family Tradition," "Living Proof," and "Whisky Bent and Hellbound"—about his burden of "Standing in the Shadows" (as the title of another song put it) of his father, the tragic hero of country music.

The tradition of the country tribute song started in 1933, with the death of the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, at the youthful age of 35. Just days later, "When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye" was issued, followed by "The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home," "The Life of Jimmie Rodgers," "The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers," and many others.

But this was a mere trickle compared to the outpouring of songs that followed the death, 20 years later, of Hank Williams, who went to his reward six years younger than Rodgers, had a more troubled life, and was (arguably) even more of a genius. According to critic Christopher Metress, 16 songs honoring Williams were released in 1953 alone, and there has been no sign of a letup. On this Web site, a German devotee of American country music named Hauke Streubing lists 96 Williams tribute songs, including "Hank Williams Sings the Blues No More," Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," "Please Don't Let the Name 'Hank' Die," and Cash's "The Night Hank Williams Came to Town." He somehow missed Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," in which the singer reports, "I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get?'/ Hank Williams hasn't answered yet," and the Boys from Indiana's "(Those Modern Songs Are Dandy, but) Play Hank's Songs Once Again."

In contrast to rappers, who cite their (living) peers mainly to diss them, country songwriters love tribute songs so much that they even write them to singers who are still alive, as in David Allan Coe's "Willie, Waylon and Me" and "Hank Williams Jr.," Toby Keith's "I'll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again," Tim McGraw's "Give It to Me Strait," and Daryle Singletary's "That's Why I Sing This Way" (the reason, he explains, is "Mama used to whip me with a George Jones album"). Cash himself was the subject of "(In the Mood for) Johnny Cash," "Hooked on Johnny Cash," "Walking Talking Johnny Cash Blues," "That's Why the Man in Black Sings the Blues," and his daughter Roseanne's lovely "My Old Man." He was also the namesake of the alt-country band the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.

Now the Man in Black is gone. He was a prodigious artist and a man of integrity, generosity, complexity, faith, doubt, pain, and joy. Gentlemen and ladies, uncap your pens.

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.