This music is shared with you as a reminder of what not to do.
In a story book career filled with dizzying highs (literally and figuratively) and incredible personal lows, for Johnny Cash, this song marked one the lowest points of his professional lows. What started off, I’m sure, as something somebody thought was a good idea, ended with the Man in Black in a chicken suit. While songs such as A Boy Named Sue and One Piece at a Time were parodies, they told stories that connected with their audiences and have become part of Americana. Who didn’t have something personal – liked a boy being named Sue – that they wanted to hide, yet that something made them tougher? And who didn’t think it would be cool to avoid the cost and hassle of buying a car by bringing it home one piece at a time?
After reaching the tip top of the music industry by the early 1970s, Cash became unfocused in the recording studio and became tied to the grind of touring in order to maintain a lifestyle. These worked in concern with each other to form a vicious cycle that made him largely irrelevant to the industry by the 1980s. And, in turn, that led to making decisions such as singing songs about having his brain traded with a criminal.
Cash remained irrelevant – at least in terms of the music charts – on into the 1990s. A pulse somewhat returned around 1994 when he recorded a song, Wanderer, with U2 for their Zooropa album. Around the same time, producer Rick Rubin called and offered Cash an opportunity to record an album of songs that Cash wanted to perform. He went on to record enough material for six albums with Rubin.
The irony here is that Cash – major star that he was, stumbled to a humiliating low while chasing popularity in the 1980s with Chicken in Black, but reached another career pinnacle – and reached a new generation of fans – when he went into the studio, stripped everything away but his guitar, and recorded songs that he loved.
Yes, there is a lesson in here somewhere for us.