Friday, June 23, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Johnny Cash, Andrew Vachss, Waylon Jennings (2002)

Johnny Cash's The Essential Johnny Cash

Country legend Johnny Cash recently celebrated his seventieth birthday and, with his health improving, has announced plans for another new album. Like many of Nashville’s old guard, Cash will keep working until he is physically unable to record or perform, and based on his last couple of albums, the Man In Black seems to only get better with age. Columbia Records – Cash’s musical home for over thirty years – is reissuing a number of his classic albums on CD this year, many for the first time. To kick off the celebration, the label has released the excellent The Essential Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy) compilation, a historical overview of Cash’s lengthy career.

The two-disc set kicks off with Cash’s early singles for Sun Records, mono jukebox favorites that became big hits during the mid-fifties. “Hey Porter,” “I Walk the Line” and “Ballad of A Teenage Queen” and their B-sides share a youthful energy, even if they only hint at Cash’s incredible charisma. Cash’s early-sixties treasures, songs like “Ring of Fire” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” set the stage for Cash’s commercial peak of 1968-1972 and crossover hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue.” From this point, the set is somewhat erratic, overlooking much of Cash’s 80s output, offering highlights like “(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” and “Highwayman,” ending with his 1993 collaboration with U2, “The Wanderer.” Overall, The Essential Johnny Cash provides the listener with a fair representation of Cash’s immense talents. If you’re looking for more, I’d heartily also recommend the expanded versions of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, reissued on CD last year.

If a novelist creates one lasting, memorable character in a book, they’ve accomplished more than most writers manage to do during their entire careers. Andrew Vachss has created an entire world revolving around his central character Burke, building a New York City peopled with fascinating characters like “Silent Max,” the Asian martial arts master, or the “Professor,” a street-smart philosopher and Burke’s mentor. The shadowy Burke is an ex-con and “man for hire” continuously walking a tightrope between freedom and prison.  

In his previous novel, Dead And Gone, Vachss left Burke stranded on the west coast; “presumed dead” by the NYPD after exacting revenge on the enemies that tried to kill him. With the latest entry in the Burke series, titled Pain Management (Alfred A. Knopf), Vachss takes the character into uncharted territory. Working in the unfamiliar environs of Portland, Oregon, Burke has taken on the job of finding a runaway teenager. Working without the safety net of his self-styled “family,” Burke finds himself embroiled in the designs of the drug-running “pain management” underground, the book delivering an ending that should surprise even the most faithful of Vachss’ readers. Vachss writes with the soul and the poetry of the street, bringing his own experiences as a lawyer, federal prosecutor and children’s advocate to bear in creating his rough-hewn and dark-hued tales. Pain Management is a fine introduction to Burke’s world, but be forewarned – after you’ve devoured one Burke novel, you’ll be running to your local bookstore to grab them all up.

Everybody who has lived in Nashville for any length of time has a favorite Waylon Jennings story, and your humble columnist is no exception. Jennings was a familiar figure in the Music City back in the seventies and one Christmas Eve, a group of friends and myself ran into Waylon drinking beer and playing darts by the fireplace of Daddywacker’s, a local joint with big burgers, cold beer and homemade potato chips.

Waylon Jennings
We began drinking beer with him and as the night wore on, Waylon suggested that we needed a Christmas tree to make the night memorable. Several of us staggered out into the alleyway behind the restaurant and found a scrappy little pine sapling behind a dumpster. Setting it up in the main room, we decorated it with empty beer mugs and potato chips. Waylon sat and drank with us until midnight and, as the restaurant closed, we wished each other a Merry Christmas and went our separate ways.

That’s the kind of guy that Waylon Jennings was, more comfortable sitting and drinking with a bunch of working class stiffs than in hanging out at any one of the industry parties that he was certainly invited to. At the time, 1976 or ‘77, Jennings was riding high, one of the biggest stars in Nashville. Success never seemed to go to his head, though, and Waylon continued to fight to retain his artistic integrity. Throughout the course of his career, Waylon never lost his connection to his fans, the audiences who appreciated his efforts to bring them music that was sincere, passionate and from the heart.

With the attitude of a punk rocker, the soul of a bluesman and the heart of a poet, Waylon Jennings forged a name and legend for himself in country music. Jennings’ death at the young age of 64 from complications due to diabetes is a sad reminder that he was one of a dying breed of Country musicians. One of the last of a generation of giants such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Waylon and his friends worked their musical magic without focus groups or image consultants. They remained true to their roots, to their beliefs and to their idea of what country music should be. There will never be another artist quite like Waylon Jennings, and come next Christmas Eve I’ll be sure to raise my glass to his memory... (The View On Pop Culture, March 2002)

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