Sunday, June 16, 2013
Track of the Week: Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"
For this track of the week I thought about discussing a song that reminded me of my father, but realized I already wrote about that song awhile back, so I will late that one stand in for my maudlin Father's Day sentiments. (If you're interested, it's "Country Roads" by John Denver.)
Instead, I'd like to discuss and entirely different, and hilarious song about fatherhood, "A Boy Named Sue." Written by Shel Silverstein, whose poetry I loved as a child (especially Where The Sidewalk Ends), it achieved its best interpretation at the hands of Johnny Cash in front of a raucous crowd of prisoners at San Quentin. It's a hilarious tune, and Cash gives it a sly, winking talk-singing treatment much to the delight of the cheering criminals.
This song's important for me, because it was how I managed to embrace classic country music. Growing up in rural Nebraska meant being inundated with the lite countrypolitan of the 1980s, followed by Garth Brooks' ridiculous faux honky tonk by way of the Eagles in the early 1990s. For that reason, I hated country music and refused to listen to it. It began to stand in for everything I despised about the narrow horizons of my rural upbringing. The only exception was the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, because songs like "Chickamauga" reminded me more of the Clash than Ronnie Milsap.
Johnny Cash was always the exception for me when it came to vintage country. I liked to wear all black, and so did he, which seemed like a pretty punk rock thing to do for a country singer. He didn't douse his songs in steel guitar, which was way over-used in the country music of 1980s and 1990s. He also had a kind of rocker attitude, kicking out the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, getting busted for drugs, and generally being an ornery son of a bitch. I picked up his 1994 "comeback" album American Recordings, which was just him and his guitar. I loved it, and finally obtained a copy of At San Quentin and was completely blown away.
I'd always been suspicious of country's claim to be the music of the flag, rural values, and the American way of life, since I didn't really care much for those things. Instead of all that tripe, this record has Cash cussing, mocking the TV producer filming the show, playing his songs like he's hell bent for leather, and winning over a bunch of violent criminals in the process. Instead of the usual insipid odes to family values, the narrator of "A Boy Named Sue" has set out to find and kill his absentee father. Sure, they finally reconcile, but only after getting into a violent altercation. I soon discovered that before country music became middle-of-the-road airbrushed junk, it was a soulful genre full of misfits, outcasts and other undesirables. I've loved that music ever since, and I have "A Boy Named Sue" to thank for it.