It’s always baffled me how anyone could listen to the lyrics of The Man in Black and not think that Johnny Cash had at least a very strong progressive streak in makeup. And yet, fans regularly castigate his daughter, songwriter and musician Rosanne Cash, on Twitter whenever she expresses a liberal viewpoint. “Your father would be ashamed of you,” is the general and often literal response from country music fans whose perceptions of her father’s political leanings are filtered through their own conservative viewpoint.
Then again, maybe I was doing the same thing — cherrypicking examples and ignoring the overall message in Cash’s music and actions. I didn’t think so, but then again I wouldn’t, would I? So it was with great interest I listened to an interview with Michael Stewart Foley, the author of Citizen Cash (2021) during a live-streamed session of last fall’s Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, and later bought his book. Foley does a great job of meticulously detailing the ways that Cash demonstrated his political viewpoints and how they evolved over the years, though always with a central touchstone — empathy — guiding each turn.
Songwriter Kris Kristofferson once wrote a song that many listeners thought was describing his good friend Johnny Cash:
He’s a poet and he’s a picker, he’s a prophet and he’s a pusher— Kris Kristofferson, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
The line “walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction” seems particularly apt. Foley shows that Cash didn’t hew strictly to any particular political ideology, but rather came to his stance on various social and political issues through the lens of empathy — putting himself into the shoes of the person or identity group in question to unearth their essential humanity. That empathy-based values system explains how he could be supportive of Richard Nixon (who promised to end the war in Vietnam with the spectacularly euphemistic slogan “peace with honor”) and campaign for a Republican candidate for governor in his home state of Arkansas (who promised to enact comprehensive prison reform of a notoriously inhumane state correctional system).
Sometimes Cash’s empathy stemmed directly from his own childhood as the son of a poor sharecropper who nevertheless saw the worse plight of black sharecroppers no further away than across the road, and who listened to and appreciated black music (or “race music” as it was called then) at a time when white people weren’t supposed to admit to such things. His own (relatively minor) brushes with the law while in the throes of an addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates led him to perform countless free concerts at prisons around the country, including the most famous ones that were turned into live albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin.. At other times he immersed himself in reading historical accounts and talking to people to better understand their lives before writing a concept album like Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian or Blood, Sweat and Tears, a collection of songs about American working men, with an emphasis on black workers.
There are other aspects of Cash’s life that don’t fit neatly into the progressive box. His devout Christianity led him to be less than forthright in supporting equal rights for women; more than once he asserted that he believed in the Bible’s teaching that a woman’s role in life is to support her husband. And he was a steadfast supporter of Billy Graham, whose antisemitic and homophobic views were far from exemplary.
The main thing I took away from this book was a growing belief that there are an awful lot of people in this world on all sides of the political spectrum who would benefit from using empathy to guide their values and their votes. I’m going to do my best to take my own advice, even when (especially when) it’s a hard road to walk. And on the other side, I hope I can remember that very few people are entirely one thing or another, and show a little more grace when encountering people whose viewpoints differ from mine. In the end, we’re all walking contradictions.