Some of the earliest memories that I have of music as far as listening to music goes were the records that I remember my mother playing on her Zenith hi-fi set—one where the turntable folded down from two attached speakers.
My mother’s record collection was a meager one at best but it did encompass a wide range of tastes and artists from Gene Pitney, Johnny Cash, and Nat King Cole to The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Supremes—even one by Led Zeppelin. I cut my “musical teeth” as it were listening to many of albums she had in that collection and acquiring my own tastes in music along the way.
Of all the artists she liked and played a lot on the hi-fi set, Johnny Cash was by far one of her most favorite artists. I can still see her slapping some Johnny Cash on the turntable (the kind where you could stack a few records on the spindle) and singing along as she cleaned house or just sitting in the kitchen with her Cokes and smokes and listening.
One of her favorite albums was Cash’s Ring of Fire. After only recording for eight years I suppose that it made sense for Columbia to come out with a “greatest hits” album to showcase his eclectic musical stylings. As such, Ring of Fire offers a worthy sampling of Cash’s far-ranging moods—from dramatic saga songs, gospel hymns and love songs to honky-tonk weepers and folk ballads. It was the kind of music that had made Cash famous and styles that would forever be a part of the legend for this “man in black.”
I would like to believe that the reason why my mother liked Johnny Cash a lot was that he was a real working-class singer—at least that is what I always thought when I listened to some of his earlier stuff—with some songs about people just trying to get by in life. I always thought he gave a voice, a musical voice to those people when he sang about their problems whether it was about love or just being lonely.
When I think about my Mom back then working at this furniture factory, Spiller & Spiller, bending tubes of metal into legs for kitchen tables and chairs, living from paycheck to paycheck, I can see why she would want to listen to Johnny Cash as well as other musicians who sang about real people—who sang about the life and how hard it could be at times. I would like to believe that when she listened to Johnny Cash it might even made her forget about some of her problems for awhile or realize that there were other people out there just like her.
At the same time, Johnny Cash could sing a good song. With the baritone voice of his and chicka-boom guitar beat it was easy to sing along or just listen and enjoy a truly original American troubadour.
Of the 12 songs on this album, “Ring of Fire” was the most famous along with “The Rebel—Johnny Yuma” (I still remember watching that TV drama) as well as “Bonanza” (that’s right there were lyrics to the theme song of that popular American TV western). Of the other songs on the album, I don’t remember them too well other than “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” “Peace in the Valley” and one that took a little while to get used to Johnny singing about Ireland “Forty Shades of Green.” Although Cash would become a legend with hits like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” – the songs on this album primarily showcased his singing talent with this wide-range of material.
I always liked “Ring of Fire” with the famous line “love is a burning thing” but what I always wanted to know was what was up with that mariachi-sounding trumpets playing in the song. Turns out that a friend of Cash’s suggested it and he (Cash) liked the idea.
Listening to a few tracks on my iPod the other day, I closed my eyes and I could see my Mom sitting at the kitchen table back in Oglesby, Illinois drinking a Coke and listening to this album. The music in our lives doesn’t always have to be something we discovered or liked on our own; instead, it’s quite possible that some of the music that defines who we are might be a song or album that someone close to us liked very much—like my mom listening to Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.