Everything I Learned About Writing I learned From Johnny Cash

By Aaron Ritchey

I just finished a biography on Johnny Cash, and love is a burning a thing.  Also, the book business has a lot of similarities to the music industry.

This is what I learned:

1)      Success can be a whole lotta luck — For example, Johnny Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1955.  Summer of 1955.  Do you know what else happened the summer of 1955?  Sam Phillips, the guru behind Sun Records, discovered Elvis.  A few months later, Johnny Cash walked into Sam Phillips’ studio.  Stupid, stupid luck.  What if Johnny Cash hadn’t been in Memphis in 1955?

2)      You don’t have to be perfect to be amazing – So Johnny Cash would get together with this buddies Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, and they would play music together.  They were a garage band in the south in the 50’s.  They weren’t all that good, but since they weren’t very good, they had to kind of fake it, which resulted in was called their “boom chicka boom” sound.  It wasn’t that they were cutting edge musicians, no, they were struggling to just get notes out there.  The result?  Folsom Prison Blues.

3)      You don’t have to be completely original to succeed –  So Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two (Grant and Perkins) had a distinctive sound.  However, Folsom Prison Blues was based on another song, Crescent City Blues.  Johnny Cash made it his own, granted, but in the end, he had to pay out a settlement because the two songs were so similar.  In a way, Johnny Cash’s entire career was based on Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk the Line.  One was an original work; the other wasn’t.  Shakespeare did this same thing.  I’m not saying steal and plagiarize, but for myself, I’ve thrown away perfectly good ideas because I thought they’d been done before.  It’s ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE!  Take your passion, make it happen, and write books in such a way that no one, and I mean no one, would ever think you plagiarized a thing.  I’d still clear of sparkly vampires, though.  Just sayin’.

4)      Writing for the market is iffy.  Writing from your heart makes all the difference – Johnny Cash would write what he thought of as “Johnny Cash” songs, like Ballad of Teenage Queen.  But then he would write his “JR Cash” songs like I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire. Those are JR songs (growing up, his family called him JR).  How many people adore and go crazy over Ballad of Teenage Queen?  It was written for the market.   Yeah, I know.  Don’t even bother YouTubeing it.  It’s a silly song.  Those other songs?  Genius!

5)      Artists need outside help and editors are necessary —  By the early 1990’s, it was clear that Johnny Cash’s best years lay behind him.  I mean, he was playing to like a dozen people in Branson, Missouri matinees.  And the people were wanting their money back.  Cash hadn’t really had a stand-out solo song for decades. Then along comes Rick Rubin,  a hotshot hip-hop producer. Why would he want to work with Johnny Cash?  He was a has-been.  Why would Johnny Cash want to work with Rick Rubin?  He was a weird hippie commie liberal sinner.  Well, the hippie part is probably true, the rest I made up.  Anyway, Rick Rubin wanted to see what he could do with a legend like Johnny Cash, someone past their prime.  Or was he?  Johnny Cash suffered from producers who failed to push him to do great things.  Sam Phillips made Johnny Cash a star because Sam Phillips had vision.  So did Rick Rubin.  If you have not heard any of the Johnny Cash American Recordings songs, well, shame on you.  Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, working together, made in my opinion the best music of Johnny Cash’s career.  Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails says that he now covers “Hurt” because it’s now a Johnny Cash song. The cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is inspired. What if Johnny Cash had had someone like Rick Rubin in the 70’s and 80’s?  What kind of masterpieces would he have recorded?

6)      You can’t write books if you are dead –  Phillip Seymore Hoffman will never act again because he overdosed on drugs.  We’ve had Colorado authors who will never write again because they committed suicide.  Johnny Cash most likely should’ve died numerous times.  If he had ridden that addiction train to nowhere, we would’ve been ROBBED of his art.  So take care of yourself.  If you drink too much, stop drinking.  If you take drugs, think about it.  If you don’t exercise and eat junk food, think about it.  You can’t write if you’re dead.  So take care of yourself.

Johnny Cash made the world a better place because wrote songs and played music.  We who write books and publish them also add something vital to this mean old world.

So keep walking that line and write.

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About Aaron Ritchey

Aaron Michael Ritchey is the author of Long Live the Suicide King, a finalist in the Reader’s Favorite contest. Kirkus Reviews calls the story “a compelling tale of teenage depression handled with humor and sensitivity.” His debut novel, The Never Prayer, was also a finalist in the Colorado Gold contest. His forthcoming works include a new young adult novel from Staccato Publishing and a six book sci-fi/western series from WordFire Press. In shorter fiction, his G.I. Joe inspired novella was an Amazon bestseller in Kindle Worlds and his story, “The Dirges of Percival Lewand” was nominated for a Hugo. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two goddesses posing as his daughters.

5 thoughts on “Everything I Learned About Writing I learned From Johnny Cash

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    Excellent post, Aaron and lots of good advice (although that comment about junk food and exercise felt like a knife to my heart).

    I saw Johnny Cash in person one time, probably the very late 70s. It was a college campus in Muncie, Indiana, and he was wearing high lace-up boots he’d just received as a gift. He looked silly, but it was a good show.

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  2. Aaron Michael Ritchey

    Oh, Deb McLeod, you will not be disappointed. I’m waiting to buy #5 until I start on the third book of my sci-fi western epic! But I am so excited. I think, like man, #4 is my favorite. When the man comes around…

    Thanks all!

    Reply

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