Blood on Blood: The Johnny Cash Admiration Society
By Alex Rice
You’d be hard-pressed to find a rocker who doesn’t count Cash as a major influence, but here are three artists who found themselves in a mutual admiration society with The Man in Black.
Bruce Springsteen couldn’t have evolved from the romantic street poet phase of his twenties into a wise wordsmith for the workingman in his thirties without the songbooks of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Johnny Cash. The seeds of Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” (from 1982’s Nebraska) can be found in Cash’s “The Man on the Hill” (1959’s Songs of Our Soil), and while Bruce may have nicked the title of The River finale “Wreck on the Highway” from an Acuff compostion of the same name, the solemn roadside memorial has “Give My Love to Rose” written all over it. The symbiotic relationship between The Boss and The Man in Black came full circle when, in 1983, Cash recorded his own versions of two criminally-minded Nebraska numbers for his Johnny 99 record - the title track and “Highway Patrolman.” A haunting take on Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road)” was also included on Cash’s first posthumous LP, American V: A Hundred Highways. Bruce covered “Rose” for a 1999 TV special honoring Johnny and performed “I Walk the Line” with the E Street Band at a Maryland stadium gig on September 13, 2003, the day after Cash died.
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival gets all of the attention since Dylan went electric there, but the prior year’s running of the fest was almost as seminal for the 23-year-old kid born Robert Zimmerman. He met one of his biggest heroes, Johnny Cash, backstage, kicking off a friendship that lasted almost four decades. For five decades, Nashville Skyline opener “Girl from the North Country” was the only officially-released Dylan-Cash duet. That changed in 2019, when the former unveiled the 15th installment of his celebrated Bootleg Series, Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969. The three-LP set features the long-bootlegged session the two recorded in February ‘69 - the only time they shared a studio - and includes takes on Cash classics like “Big River” and Dylan staples such as“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Four years before that, Cash had a hit with his rendition of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” from the Orange Blossom Special album, where he also put his own stamp on “Don’t Think Twice.” “I'd put on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off,” Cash recalled in his 1997 autobiography. “After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he'd been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line.’”
U2 enlisted the talents of Bob Dylan and B.B. King as they searched for the home of the blues on the soundtrack to 1988’s divisive Rattle and Hum, but their greatest collaboration with an American music treasure came six years later. How do you throw your listeners for one final loop on an album that features Bono singing falsetto about citrus fruit and The Edge robo-rapping an advice column? Hand over lead vocals to Johnny Cash on the final song, of course! The Man in Black sings some of Bono’s finest lyrics on the closer to 1993’s zany Zooropa, “The Wanderer.” It’s a strikingly beautiful tune that carries all the emotional weight of his best American Recordings material, one whose 61-year-old singer has been to hell and back on the spiritual journey its 33-year-old songwriter yearns to embark upon. “The Wanderer” was used as transitional music during the intermission of U2’s Innocence + Experience Tour in 2015, accompanied by an onscreen avatar of Cash that aged as the song progressed. The Irish legends had previously covered “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” at a surprise club gig in Houston during the Joshua Tree tour in 1987, while Cash recorded his own rendition of their megahit “One” for 2000’s American III: Solitary Man.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.
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