Walk the Line
February 22, 2017
Finally caught the biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter, and I’ve got a couple of thoughts.
I love movies about artists because there’s often some bit about creativity that jumps out and speaks to me. In this one, for me, about the most powerful scene is when Cash and his band are at their first audition at a local record studio, and they’re playing some hokey old gospel standard, and the owner stops them. They’re not good, he doesn’t want to hear more. Cash asks, was it the song or the way he sang it? The owner says, (paraphrasing), “The way you sang it.” Cash: “What’s wrong with the way I sing?” Owner: “I don’t believe you.” Cash gets upset here: “You saying I don’t believe in God?” They go back and forth on this, until finally the owner boils it down into a magnificent speech about playing from the heart: “Imagine: you’re washed up in a ditch, you’re dying, and you have time to sing one song, you only have one song to tell God who you are and how you feel. You get one song, one chance — is that really what you want to sing?” And then Cash shyly, haltingly, sings “Folsom Prison Blues” in public for the very first time, and there’s this moment of tension and understanding, where the owner realizes that yes, he’s a great singer and Cash knows how he has to go forward for the rest of his career.
And it’s true, and it’s great. At the event last weekend I was asked what the worst writing advice I ever got is. I get this question a lot, and I always say: “Write to the market” is terrible advice. Because if you’re only doing what you think will sell, if you only worry about trying to be popular and trying to give people what they want (without maybe understanding what they really want), you’re going to end up singing that hokey unfeeling gospel song instead of becoming Johnny Cash. Or whoever you were meant to be, you know?
The second thing I got from the movie: Waylon Jennings. He shows up as a side character a couple of times, because he’s always showing up as a side character in biopics of musicians. Because he was that kind of musician — he knew everyone, went everywhere, made a mark. But is he ever going to get his own story?
But maybe that is his story. And I think back to the moment when he gave his seat on that plane to the Big Bopper, and then the plane crashed and killed him, and Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens. Musical history changed, and Jennings is right on the fulcrum of that.
There’s a story in there. Gotta think about it.