Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Ramones' "Indian Giver," R.E.M.'s "Me In Honey," and David Bowie's "Starman."
Referring to Johnny Cash as a fixture doesn't do his legend justice. To someone like me, I was surprised to learn he had any kind of origin. Normal people came from mothers and had human histories. Johnny Cash felt like he had always been here, and I don't mean that in a he-started-before-I-was-born kind of way, although he certainly was. I mean that Johnny Cash has more in common with an old sequoia or a mountain or Lake Michigan than with, say, Bob Dylan. This probably comes from a weird kind of assumption both by the artist and his audience. Johnny Cash just was.
After all that, it's not going to surprise anyone to point out that the most striking part of any Johnny Cash song is the vocals. I am not a champion of vocals, per se. It's not like I belong to some sort of instrumentation faction hell bent on proving how much more superior their portion of a song is than that OTHER portion. It's just that most of the time I feel the vocals and instruments should simply occupy the song. If not equally, then mutually beneficially. To my mind, the vocals are just another instrument, and all the instruments of any song must work together seamlessly.
But there are the rare cases where I just end up paying attention to some instruments more than others, and that's the case with Johnny Cash's throat instrument in "Ghost Riders in the Sky". And in "Ghost Riders", I'm not the only ones. The backing band takes its cues from Johnny himself. As I attempted to pick along with my lousy guitar playing, I discovered that conventional time-keeping methods did not apply. Typically each verse should be about two measures long from the beginning of the verse to just before the beginning of the next verse. And this happens in most cases. But then, either accidentally or by choice or by some strange artistic choice, the final set of lyrics go for about three measures, then two, and it feels almost arbitrary. One time they make room for a horn flair, but then Cash slows down one phrase only to speed up the next one. It's all over the place, making it difficult to memorize and thereby tantalizing to my memory.
The central time piece of this song is Johnny Cash himself, and rightly so. There are many version of this song through the ages, but I doubt any can match Cash's dramatic cache. He almost makes "Yippee-kay-oh, Yippee-kay-ah" sound scary (almost) and he accomplishes this by investing so thoroughly in the surrounding verses. As that force of nature booms out the semi-dark tale of a group of un-dead cowboys, you don't so much believe it as you simply listen and wait for the next syllable to drip from his lips. I'm also a sucker for the standard "boom-chuck" of old-style country music. So a mix of that beat with that unstoppable voice, it was probably only a matter of time before the song made it to my head.
But there I go again. I was just about to call Cash's voice "great," thereby limiting the artist to the human plane. There are many great vocalists, and many great singers. Many people can be great. But only Johnny Cash could BE Johnny Cash.
NOTE: The attached, incredibly obvious amateur video (production stills of the comic book character and film "Ghost Rider" set to the song) may have cracked the mystery of the internet. All you need is a popular song set to ANYTHING and you can garner 241,898 hits in a little over a year.
Written By Phillip Mottaz