How I finally learnt to love country music

The songs convey a potency, because underlying each twang is a sense of life being waged against the odds

Most of us, at around 18, find it impossible to believe anything outside our own era could be of any cultural value whatsoever. When I was that age, if Beethoven, Charlie Parker and Bob Dylan had knocked at my bedroom door and offered to play a concert for free, I'd have told them to shut up as I was trying to listen to my Damned record. And then I'd have yelled "and if you listen to this riff on "New Rose", you might learn something."

When I was told by wiser voices that characters like Bill Haley and Louis Armstrong had been considered as radical and shocking in their times as The Clash were in mine, it just seemed impossible. It was as if someone was saying Max Bygraves began his career entertaining guerrillas by singing a duet of "Underneath the Arches" with Che Guevara.

Gradually it dawned on me that artists from other generations were worth pursuing, and I fell in love with the best of most styles of music, with one major exception - country. It seemed musically conservative and socially even more conservative, the choice of old rural Americans singing songs with titles like "If a man can't wear a sheet and burn a cross and lynch his slave, this land ain't free". But country can creep up on you. Eventually, it can become apparent that the roots of country are not all so pernicious, and that the most innocuous love song can convey a potency, because underlying each twang is a sense that life is being waged against the odds.

Or to put this another way, you come across Johnny Cash. The most obvious point about his records is that when he sings about love and pain, you know he means love and pain, and when he sings about a man by a railroad being shot, you know this bloke's been shot.

I doubt whether anything in the catalogue of gangsta rap is as chilling as when Cash sings with a cheerfully gruff matter-of-factness, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die". Like the finest actor, he understood that understated menace is more chilling than yelling, "Boom boom gonna blast your head with my lead 'til you're dead and as runny as cheese spread".

The other side to Cash's ability to convey brutality was an empathy with its victims. There can be few more moving moments on any record than when he sings to the prisoners of San Quentin a line of touching simplicity: "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you." There follows the most poignant reaction of an audience on a live recording, as the prisoners seem to gasp for a moment before launching into a vast cheer, in response to the first words of compassion they've heard since they arrived at the place.

On a record saluting 200 years of American songs, he recites the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered by Abraham Lincoln on a battlefield prior to his law emancipating the slaves. This might not seem particularly radical, until you bear in mind the dominant emblem of the genre he's singing in is the Confederate flag. So this was like announcing you'd like to sing to a group of England supporters who are chanting, "No surrender to the IRA", before bellowing out a medley of tributes to Bobby Sands.

Cash was unequivocal in his support for the rights of native Americans, singing of the massacre at Wounded Knee. And at the height of the Vietnam War, he wrote a song explaining why he famously wore black. As well as "for the poor and for the homeless", the black was "for the hundreds of our men who die believing God is on their side and for the thousands of our men who die believing we are on their side."

His last album began with a song of his approach to impending death, and contains a series of quotes from the Book of Revelations. It's so chilling it ought to be used for one of these challenges, the sort where someone has to spend a whole night in a pitch-black haunted house. Maybe David Blaine could see if he could sit in a dark room while this was blaring. And the record continues with a song alluding to the drink and speed-fuelled debauchery of his past. "I will let you down," he croaks, and you know this is someone who desperately doesn't want to let you down, but will.

It's a song that should be compulsory for groups such as the putrid Blue to listen to. For they succeeded in the spectacular achievement of covering an Elton John song and making it worse. "Sorry seems to be the hardest word", they sang, along with Elton, and on the video they all come out smiling and waving. Shouldn't they at least try. It's worse than if Romeo and Juliet ended with the pair of them singing, "When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbin' along" as they kill themselves.

And while this goes on, in the past nine months we've lost Joe Strummer, Nina Simone and now Johnny Cash. I'm not generally big on praying, but God, if you're listening, is there any chance you could take Thatcher, Bush and Celine Dion, just to even things up a bit?

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