So Lonesome


A guitar, a piano, and the voice of a man who is near death. (VIA FLICKR)


There are no synthetic beats raging in the background. There are no electronic instruments, no amplifiers, no vocal effects and no auto-tune. The decorations are minimal, the arrangements are simple, but the bones are in place—a guitar, a piano, and the voice of a man who is near death. Johnny Cash’s cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” featured on American IV: The Man Comes Around, is one of the last songs recorded by the musical legend. It is astonishingly beautiful. But what makes it beautiful isn’t a flawless vocal performance, or a technically powerful adaptation. Its beauty is in its honesty. There is no pretension to the singer’s vulnerability, and there is no attempt to mask his suffering. There is only a simple melody, and lyrics so relevant that one cannot help feeling disarmed.

This first time I heard this song I was unprepared. Having been bombarded by today’s predictable beats and airbrushed vocals, my oral palette was not expecting an addition like this. The opening chords, the cracks in his voice, and the clarity in his words—I was afraid even to swallow, for fear of shattering the confessional spell that Cash had cast. I sat there only a moment after the track had ended, before I immediately started it again. The more I listened, the more I wanted to know. The harder I tried to look into the song, the deeper I felt its gaze boring into me. Its honesty demanded my honesty, and I found that notion to be both beautiful and terrifying. The track faced the fragility of life head on—I was not prepared to do the same.

[quote_center]The track faced the fragility of life head on—I was not prepared to do the same.[/quote_center]

In 2003, the year after American IV was released, Cash’s wife June Carter passed away. Four months later, Cash himself passed. Though the singer’s death was caused by complications from a diabetes-related disease, it is often suspected that what truly killed him was the loss of his love. In listening to this track—knowing the lonely loss that Cash would endure only a year later—I find myself struck by the eerie prediction that these lyrics proposed. “Did you ever see a robin weep when leaves begin to die,” he sings. “Like me, he’s lost the will to live. I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Coming from a man near death, with a wife also—unknowingly—near death, these words are haunting in their implications.

Hank Williams wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1949. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Bob Dylan have since performed covers of their own—but none have left me as captivated as Cash’s version. This captivation, I suspect, is due to the direct manner in which the artist’s voice cuts through the room. It is not harsh, it is not obtrusive, and yet it is unavoidable. At first it’s discomforting; it’s as if he’s sitting across from me, revealing his poker hand, and waiting expectantly for me to do the same. It is not a sensation that I am used to. I am a part of a generation whose members present themselves through the filters of Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds, and carefully crafted texts. We have the luxury of revealing only the image of ourselves that we want others to see—and sometimes operating without the safety net of these prearranged personas can be terrifying. But what is so beautiful about Cash’s track is its simplicity, its honesty, its lack of enhancement and decoration. In an effort, then, to present only our most made-up, most polished, and most picture-perfect selves—is it possible that we are actually diminishing our beauty?

Part of what strikes me about this cover is the bravery that I imagine it required. Many ailing artists find themselves tending away from the spotlight—perhaps afraid that failing vocals or suffering bodies will produce tracks of a lower caliber than what they have been known for. Not so with Johnny Cash. His illness inspired a much more somber album than had come previously, and there is a weariness in his vocals that is not present in his earlier tracks. But his willingness to share his music despite—or perhaps more accurately, because of—his pain is an honorable gift that will touch generations. Any effects that his sickness had on his final album only contributed further to its beauty.

[quote_center]Part of what strikes me about this cover is the bravery that I imagine it required.[/quote_center]

I didn’t grow up in the south, and I attribute this to why I’ve never quite felt the attachment to country music that so many Americans can boast. I find the songs on the country radio station too similar to one another. I find many southern drawls to be distracting, rather than comforting. I find descriptions of fields and plains to be less than riveting. While I can appreciate country music’s place in history, I’ve never found it particularly relatable. This track of Cash’s, however, surprised me in its accessibility. Partly due to the singer’s approach, and partly due to Williams’ universal lyrics, this track compels me in a way that no other song of this genre has. Even Cash’s southern drawl seems so integral to the message put forth, that it feels familiar, not foreign. Something doesn’t have to be familiar to be beautiful, but this track’s ability to create familiarity where it seems it shouldn’t exist certainly contributes to its beauty.

Though American IV was Johnny Cash’s last recorded album, it was an album I had heard almost nothing about. I was familiar—perhaps due to the release of the film Walk the Line—with the artist’s music during his time on drugs, his time with June Carter, and his time performing in prisons. It wasn’t until a friend introduced me to his final tracks that I became aware of the shift in his music that occurs at the end of his life. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” finishes with a mournful finality that truly feels like an artist’s goodbye to his music, to his fans, and eventually, to the earth. I wonder if Cash knew how close he was to death.

The beauty in the directness of this recording cannot be overlooked. The arrangement, true to both the artist and the original composer, is rich because it is bare. It is noticeable because it lacks gaud. It is audible because it is soft, and it is penetrating because it is pure. It is a song that demands one’s complete attention—the sincerity with which Cash delivers each note does not lend itself to background noise. It is a song that had relevance at the time of its recording, but grows more relevant with each subsequent listen. We live in an age that pulses with over-stimulation, and the more prominent this characteristic becomes, the more powerful stripped-down covers like these will be. The track is arresting, provoking, and at times heart breaking—but it is undeniably beautiful.

“The silence of a falling star
lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are…”
— ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’