Spend some time with Johnny Cash's latest album, "American Recordings," and you'll hear songs about love, songs about faith and songs about the cruel tricks fate can play. Typical Johnny Cash material, in other words.
But what seems to startle listeners the most is the amount of violence in the album. Much of it is implied, as in the tortured life described in "Thirteen." But some of the violence is quite vivid, like in "Delia's Gone," where the protagonist sings "First time I shot her, I shot her in the side/Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died."
Scary stuff, to be sure. But it's hardly the bloodiest thing Cash ever recorded.
"The most violent song I ever recorded -- and everybody thought it was funny -- was 'A Boy Named Sue,' " he says, over the phone from his office in Nashville. "It's a son and a father who are estranged, and [the son] vowed to kill his father.
"They finally meet in a saloon, and he breaks a chair across his father's face and knocks out all his teeth. His father takes a knife and cuts his ear off. Then they kick and gouge and hit each other, and break through the wall into the street, in the mud and the blood and the beer. It's only when they stand up and draw on one another with their guns, ready to kill, that one of them smiles and the fight's over.
"It's the most violent song I ever recorded," he affirms. Then he laughs, and adds, "And that was requested by President Nixon [when I played] at the White House."
Cash cautions that he's "not out to justify violence, but people do like those kind of songs." In fact, they always have.
"You know the songs of tragedy and violence and murder go way back, to the very beginning," he says. "I mean, the biggest-selling ballad of the 19th century was 'The Ballad of Jesse James.' "
Country music has been full of tuneful tragedy and gore. "Along with [Roy Acuff's] 'Wreck on the Highway,' we had such staples as the Carter Family's 'Grave on the Green Hillside' and 'Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.'
" 'Delia's Gone,' that's an old song, from the '20s or '30s. And the most violent song of all from the late '20s was 'Banks of the Ohio,' about a guy that stabbed his girl, and she wasn't quite dead, so he held her under water till she drowned. It's considered one of the most beautiful songs in country music.
"What these songs do is reflect the society we live in," he says. "I guess the more and more violent our society becomes, the more you hear about that. I'm not trying to glorify violence and murder, I'm just throwing it back in our faces, what's going on out there. I've seen things on CNN the last three days that made me shudder. [Violence] is on that part of the media all day long."
That's why the songs have such resonance, though. As Cash puts it, "I think most people realize that that's a part of what we are. Those kind of things are happening every day."
To hear selections from Johnny Cash's album "American Recordings," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6171 after you hear the greeting.
When: Monday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m.
Where: Warner Theatre
Tickets: $36 orchestra and front balcony seats, $28.50 all others
$ Call: (410) 841-7328