Monday, March 1, 2010

Music, Faith, and Mortality

We just picked up the new Johnny Cash record, American VI: Ain't No Grave. I threw it on the portable music player and have been listening to it since yesterday morning.

I went and picked it up on Saturday afternoon at a fun record store. Of course, I passed right by the prominent display and had to ask someone where to find it, but my cluelessness led to an interesting (very brief) conversation with the guy at the record store where I bought it. He told me that he's a big Johnny Cash fan, which isn't a surprise since I think everyone should be a big Johnny Cash fan. He told me, though, that he didn't think this record was that great. He thought that if Johnny Cash was still alive, he wouldn't have let this album be released. It's not that the tracks were bad, they just weren't that great. He thought that maybe these tracks ought to have been released as b-sides.

As I listened to the record, I could certainly see what he meant. While the voice is unmistakably Johnny Cash (that trademark bass that, when it's just about as low as you think it can be, goes down about a third more) is also unmistakably the fragile and wavering voice of an old man. I think this may be what the record store guy was talking about. He also said that it's mostly spiritual songs obviously sung by someone who's getting close to death.

The fragility in his singing makes the record even more remarkable to me. It sounds less like an album that was produced so that fans would be able to buy it, and more like a guy sitting on the front porch with his guitar singing songs that he loves.

I think the record store guy is exactly right in his assessment, which is why I like this album. I recognize the humanity and mortality in his singing because I've heard the same thing from a number of old people who have been members of church communities that I've also been able to be part of. My favorite example is this old guy who played the fiddle. I'll call him Ralph, 'cause that was his name. Ralph probably had been a pretty decent fiddler when he was younger. He certainly had a couple beautiful (looking and sounding) fiddles, and he knew a lot of songs. By the time I knew him, he was already old, but he was fairly healthy. In fact, he even sat in when we introduced a brand new bluegrass liturgy to the congregation (and the world ... sort of). Ralph had a somewhat extended illness, and while he was trying to recover, I took time to sit with him at the hospital and at the nursing home where he was for a while. I loved visiting Ralph ~ he was great fun to talk with, and he had a pleasant family. If I stopped by when his family was around, we always had a great conversation. I always heard from the nurses, from the other employees, and sometimes from some of the other residents that they enjoyed his fiddle playing. Apparently he'd play in his room, and sometimes in the common areas, which seemed to always be well-received.

Sometimes when I'd stop by to visit, Ralph was by himself ~ his family wasn't around, and he didn't have anything else to do, so we'd talk. But we'd usually only talk for about 5 minutes. That seemed long enough to communicate whatever was necessary to communicate. Then we'd start playing music. See, Ralph always had his fiddle. And his wife Esther had learned to play mandolin to accompany him when they'd go play for people. But she never played by herself, so wherever Ralph's fiddle was, Esther's mandolin was there too. So after we were done talking, Ralph would rosin his bow, I'd tune Esther's mandolin, and we'd play together for a while. I didn't know most of the tunes, but I followed along well enough to the simple changes that went with the old-time fiddle tunes he knew.

If someone had recorded those visits, they probably wouldn't be worth even the b-side to a record. But there was something wonderful about hearing someone's deep love for music, even if they didn't play as well as they once might have. And that's the way I feel about the new Johnny Cash record ~ it's an old musician singing songs from deep within him. There's something there that can't be produced, it just has to be played.

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