Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 5

I have a very special announcement coming today to celebrate Johnny Cash’s birthday, so this is this is the final installment of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I posted a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man. By 9 am Hawaiian time today I have a special reveal in honor of the Man In Black.

When I look back on the musical career of Johnny Cash what is clear is that he accumulated a vast collection of recordings over an almost 50 year period. Between 1954 and 2003 he recorded and released approximately 96 albums of music and 153 singles. So choosing just five songs was a little daunting. But the overriding theme was looking at what songs held the most significance for me as a person and musician. This helped focus some of my choices.

Starting off was easy, “Folsom Prison Blues” is what got me going on my Johnny Cash adventure in 6th grade, so that was obvious. The next song again was simple enough for me because “Hurt” is what I heard as a twenty something when I needed a fresh musical start and was a little confused about my direction. “Walk the Line” had to be included because that was the first Johnny Cash song I covered in a live performance that people responded to. And then it wouldn’t be a Cash discussion without mentioning his gospel influence and his love for gospel music, which resonated with me on a spiritual level as I set out on my own spiritual journey, so I had to choose “Diamonds In the Rough” with special bonus song “The Man Comes Around”.

So what song to round it all out? Very hard indeed, I mean “The Man In Black” is important because it expresses his identity as a person and explains  the reasoning behind one of his signature fashion choices. “A Boy Named Sue” is good because it shows his humorous side and his love for story telling. What about “Rose of My Heart” one of his less known numbers that is one of the most poignant ballads ever written, not by Cash, but covered with such conviction and depth. How about “Unchained” another song he didn’t write, but a gem of a tune he unearthed and gave new life through his always powerful interpretation. Same for “Bird On a Wire” and “Delia’s Gone” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and “One”.

Not to mention some of his other early hits, “Big River”, “Jackson”, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”, “Cocaine Blues”, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” or “Cry, Cry, Cry”. Then some of his finest covers of country classics like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.

Well as you can see there are a few I’ve been touched by.

But when I really looked at it, it was as a song from “Out Among the Stars” that really ended up being one of the most powerfully influential on my life. A song from an album that actually just finally saw the light of day last year though it was originally recorded in two sessions in 1981 and 1984. A year ago I was in a special place. Having finally celebrated an important year of growth I was able to finally hear and understand the words in this song. It expressed ideas and concepts I didn’t understand before. Take a listen:

“I came to believe in a power much higher than I                                                                                                  I came to believe that I needed help to get by.                                                                                                   In child like faith I gave in and gave him a try                                                                                                      I came to believe in a power much higher than I”

Powerful words indeed and I feel no elaboration is necessary as they speak for themselves.

So stay tuned for a special announcement later today. I owe so much to Johnny Cash that I thought it fitting to do one thing, write him a tribute song. This song is currently available on my album “Paniolo Music” which you can purchase on iTunes or CD Baby  and by 9 am Hawaiian time I will be releasing a special You Tube exclusive on my channel to accompany this song.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 4

I have a very special announcement coming tomorrow, so this is day four of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man. I will blog about one more song tomorrow morning before a special reveal at 3:00 Hawaiian time.

Beyond Mr. Cash’s well crafted country music standards and his unique personal interpretations of popular songs, above all Johnny Cash was a lover and perpetuator of authentic southern gospel music. He recounts lovingly and in detail in his autobiography about his upbringing in Arkansas where he was surrounded by gospel music, either by his mother, in church or on the radio.

Throughout his recording career he expressed his love and affinity for gospel music. One of my favorite Johnny Cash stories is of him very early on going into Sun Studio to audition for Sam Phillips and playing him gospel songs. After a few valiant attempts Sam Phillips finally stops Cash and tells him that no one is buying gospel records and asks him if he had anything else. This is when Johnny Cash played “Hey Porter” for Phillips, which ended up being his first number one hit.

What was interesting is that throughout Cash’s recording career he constantly struggled with his desire to play gospel music and his need for hits. After leaving Sun Records and during his early years with Columbia, he was given free artistic reign to record what he wanted and he often chose songs with a religious bent rather than songs that had potential to be pop hits. And later during Cash’s rediscovery of his Christian faith, these sentiments became even stronger, to the point in which he was crafting fully realized thematic albums, soundtracks and even movies about his devotion for Jesus and the Gospel.

I always found this to be the most fascinating parts of Johnny Cash the man. While I always loved his country standards such as “Ring of Fire”, “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Walk the Line”, it was his spiritual music that really moved me at a deeper level. I could connect to his deep spiritual faith and his commitment to a power greater than himself.

So I do have to admit I’m gonna cheat here and add one more song of significance.

This was one of the last songs that Johnny Cash wrote and I think one his most poignant. While not a traditional gospel spiritual in the vein of the first song from the Carter Family, it exists at the same level with the same message. That personal redemption is possible through a spiritual path to righteousness. Yet this remained a struggle of his up tot he end as he expresses in the song when he says, “Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground?”. So while he may have chose Jesus and he may have died believing that is the only way, I hold firmly to the belief that just an acceptance of a power greater than oneself is necessary.

Religious discussion aside, I feel the music is beautiful, powerful and it holds deep personal meaning for me. As I began to see Johnny Cash as more than just the Man In Black, but as an individual on his journey on earth to be more connected to the spiritual energies of existence I began to listen more closely to his gospel music. And then in turn I began my own journey. And for that I am grateful.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 3

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this is day three of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

As I set out on my professional music career it was as an `ukulele player that I found my niche. I had spent a number of years studying and practicing the instrument and I found myself playing in a Hawaiian music trio supporting singer Bruddah Smitty. On my own time I was continuing my explorations as a singer mostly influenced at this time by two artists: Sonny Chillingworth and Johnny Cash. Performing in a Hawaiian music group, anytime I was offered to lead a song I would choose one of Chillingworth’s classics, like “Kila Kila Na Roughrider” or “Pua Lililehua”. At times I would throw in a Hawaiian standard from the Gabby era like “I Ka Po Me Ke Au” or “Makee Ailana”. I also enjoyed pulling from Sonny Chillingworth’s lesser known songs from his work with the Sons of Hawaii like “Sunshine Between the Rain” or “So Sad and Blue”

One night while doing a gig Smitty requested I play something “I like play”. Like I said, I would usually chose a song to fit in with the  Hawaiian music we were playing, but I think he was trying to get me to come out of my shell a little bit and add something else to the group. For whatever reason I wanted to do a Johnny Cash song so I called out a key and kicked into “Walk the Line”.

And the crowd went crazy.

Whether it was a combination of me finally getting my feet more firmly planted in what I was doing, the sound of twelve string guitar and ukulele playing Johnny Cash or the simple fact that Cash is pretty popular int his paniolo town, the people ate it up. I was getting hana hous and people wanted more. So I kicked into another Johnny Cash song and another. And from then on that’s all people wanted to hear from me.

It was a transformative moment. I had finally discovered what I can do. I finally was able to represent something that was authentically me and real to what I enjoyed doing and felt. I loved every second of it. Soon Smitty was calling me “Johnny Trash” or “Keoni Opala” for fun and people were specifically requesting I do “Walk the Line or “Folsom” or “Ring of Fire”. I felt I had arrived. I felt I had something to offer and to bring to the table rather than just the novelty of being the tall haole `ukulele player.

I felt this simple little love song from 50 years ago gave me an identity. Now I was the `ukulele playing, Johnny Cash singing tall haole guy, and it felt good.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 2

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this is day two of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

While I was deeply moved and effected at a young age by the song “Folsom Prison Blues”, which I detailed in the first post of this blog series, Cash’s music wasn’t a big part if my life for the intervening 10+ years. Ironically enough it was this song “Hurt” that brought me back as it was produced by a producer that helped create the same music that took me away from Cash’s canon.

From the ages of 11-22 I would describe my musical tastes, while vast and diverse, as having centered around hard core punk, metal, alternative and old school hip hop. So when I finally came back around to Johnny Cash in 2002, it was fitting it came as the result of the work of music producer and producer of all things cool Rick Rubin and his series of American Recordings.

I don’t remember where or when I first heard Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” but there are a few things I remember. I know I was an extremely frustrated young musician who wasn’t sure what direction I was going musically. And actually I was thinking it was about time I give this up and move onto to other things. But something about this song intrigued me. Mainly, how did he turn this Nine Inch Nails song into the melancholy brooding gospel-esque ballad of mourning and why did it sound so cool when I sang it along with him.

And I say that with upmost humility and respect. Let me explain. Up to this point I fashioned myself vocally as a high pitched emo tenor. I know, it’s scary. And honestly I sucked at it. There is nothing worse than hearing a cigarette smoking, heavy drinking, 22 year old, fresh out of college thinking he can sing like a mix between Eddie Vedder and Radiohead.

But when I began to sing along with Cash to this song I felt like I found myself. The notes were comfortable, natural and soothing. It actually freaked me out. I had never sung like this and I had no idea what I was doing or how I was producing it.

This set me off on a new adventure in which I had to completely rediscover and reconfigure my singing voice. Notes that I didn’t know existed or were possible to sing became part of my palette. Keys that I had never sung in or knew the scales too became an avenue for my vocal expressions. And most of all, songs that I never dreamed of singing took on a new life and a new interpretation.

But also, songs I thought were part of my repertoire were completely discarded and thrown in the dump.

I realized quickly I needed to start anew and I needed to build up an entire new tower of song. It was exciting, exhilarating and thrilling. And honestly it saved me. I had a new purpose and new drive. So I began doing when any energetic young musician should do, completely immerse oneself in the music of an artist who you love and respect and thoroughly investigate all the parameters, characteristics and circumstances that created this amazing thing.

I needed to go back, way back, back to the source and find out where I fit in all of this.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 1

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this starts my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

For me I have to start with “Folsom Prison Blues”. I first heard this song from my guitar teacher in 6th grade. He was from the midwest and loved country music, especially Johnny Cash. I am not sure what prompted him, but he felt it fit to teach a group of middle schoolers how to play “Folsom Prison Blues” and boy am I glad he did. I have no idea where that man is today, but he changed my life forever.

He started by showing us the hammer ons in the bass register for the E major, A7 and B7 chords and I obsessively practiced this for days. I had no idea you could isolate notes of a chord for accentuation. Up until then I thought you had to strum it all the way through. It was hard, but after lots of practice I began to get it.

He then showed me the little guitar picking riff with the hammer on of the g sharp note from the open g string and the subsequent b to d notes. I love the dissonant 7th sound it provided and I was surely off and running once I realized you can play the two parts together. My mind was thoroughly blown and it set me up for months of exploration of chords and the different notes that a chord is made up of.

This was truly a transformative moment in my life. And to top it all off, in the song he says he shot a man, “just to watch him die”. The fact that someone could say that and put it to song just completely blew my mind.

I always remember that moment as when I first heard not only Johnny Cash, but music in general. It is when I really HEARD the music, I could hear all the components and the pieces that when put together created the sound, not just feel it.

It wasn’t until years later in my 20s when I “heard” Johnny Cash’s music again in the American series with Rick Rubin that I truly “got it” and which in turn jump started my musical endeavors again. At that point I was a failed emo-alternative rock musician wannabe with no direction or drive. My attempts at being the next cross between Eddie Vedder, Anthony Keidis and Jeremy Enigk had ended and the possibility of me putting down the guitar and giving up on the singing were real.

But there was a song that brought it all back to me again. Check back in tomorrow…