It’s easy to laugh at Johnny Cash. There’s his portentous “man in black” image; his chiseled-in-stone face that looks as if it were invented by some PR man for the sole purpose of gazing resolutely at the horizon; his conversion in the 1960s to Christian fundamentalism and attendant toadying up to the likes of Billy Graham; the anachronistic patriarchal values in his songs–frontier individualism, six-gun machismo, paternalistic protection of the purity of womanhood.

But there’s something about Cash that can’t be dismissed. His staying power despite trends and fads has been remarkable. Although the 60s-era counterculture largely ignored him–he was too patriotic, too stolid, too much a part of the Nashville establishment–Cash was a role model during that time for Waylon Jennings and many of the outlaws who followed. Kris Kristofferson wrote songs about him (“To Beat the Devil”) and for him (“Junkie and the Juicehead [Minus Me]”); Cash himself put his imprimatur on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and incorporated Dylan’s songs into his repertoire. None of this seemed calculated; Cash was genuinely interested in these youthful new voices, even as a lot of his contemporaries looked upon the long-haired rebels with mistrust.

Since then Cash has become a nearly mythical figure, a symbol for many of the lost soul of country music, a reminder of how it once reflected hard-won adult sensibilities instead of the callow, sneering self-absorption of contemporary brat-pack C&W stars. Despite his excursions into commercialism, his posh Nashville estate (Cashville), and his incessant hobnobbing with Graham and other born-again big shots, Cash has managed to retain his rugged wandering-soul sense of drama as well as a feel for the healing power of music, which catapulted him into rockabilly notoriety on the Sun label in the 50s.

When he stands at the microphone draped in black, Cash evokes an old-time fire-and-brimstone circuit rider wandering from town to town preaching to the heathen in his stentorian, sanctified baritone. Many of his greatest songs are essentially morality plays: outlaws and doomed men run desperately from the law or languish in jail, dreaming of freedom and sanctuary but unable to rest.

But this preacher isn’t pious or smug. He may preach salvation, but he sings of the doomed as if he’s one of them. His outlaw heroes are more than props in fables of sin and punishment; like the great biblical teachers he admires, Cash knows that the world is a fallen place where good men sometimes make tragic mistakes–crimes of passion or hubris (“I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die”), desperate acts to feed a family or win a woman’s favor–and then face the burden of retribution.

In America, though, retribution isn’t always distributed equally. Cash’s work conveys a sense of populist outrage that sometimes becomes overtly political: “I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free,” his imprisoned narrator sings in “Folsom Prison Blues,” then thinks about the fat cats smoking big cigars in fancy train compartments and concludes, “but those people keep on movin’ and that’s what tortures me.” More often, though, it’s the empathy with which Cash treats his fallen men that makes his allegiances clear: in a world where rich, favored Abel can purchase limitless glory, Cash has the courage and compassion to sing for the renegade Cain.

At the Cubby Bear a few weeks ago Cash demonstrated why his music endures and why the values that lurk beneath the gimmickry of his stage image persist–and in fact are becoming increasingly important in an age fraught with displacement and spiritual ennui. Like other great troubadours of the American frontier and backwoods–Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers–Cash takes familiar situations and characters and elevates them to the level of myth.

There’s an unadorned elegance to the best of Cash’s work that recalls the primal artistry of the great blues artists. His current band is nothing more than the basics–lead and rhythm guitars, piano, bass, drums–and his lyrics are masterpieces of stark realism and poetic understatement. Even his love songs and love-lost songs are exquisitely crafted expressions of longing. “I Still Miss Someone” is an eloquent piece of pop poetry (“There’s someone for me somewhere / And I still miss someone”) that never descends into cryin’-in-your-beer bathos: the listener has to meet the singer halfway and confront his own vulnerability in order to immerse himself in the song.

It’s that vulnerability and lack of redneck machismo that distinguish Cash from the good-ol’-boy excesses that plague the rest of contemporary country music culture. At the Cubby Bear, his rendition of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” painted a haunting spiritual solitude, and his evocations of the western mythos were drenched in a noir-ish foreboding. He may love the outlaw for his bravery and tormented soul, but he doesn’t romanticize his violence or condition: Cash’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man,” sung in a droning monotone and set to an obsessive cadence, numbingly recites the towns and cities the man passes through on his flight from justice–a stark portrayal of a desolate life.

Even when he rocks out, Cash often sounds restless and consumed by doubt. “Big River,” a classic from the Sun era, is one of the great rockers of all time, but it’s actually a joyful-sounding rendition of a sorrowful tale (“I taught the weepin’ willow how to cry / I showed the clouds how to cover up the clear blue sky / The tears I cried for that woman / Are gonna flood you, Big River . . . “). “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a rollicking faux folk song about the ghosts of condemned cowboys riding for eternity through the cold western night, is at its heart another reworking of Cash’s tragic vision of wrongdoing and retribution.

What most sets Cash apart from much modern country, however, is his lack of solipsism. Like the blues, his music–with its individualist ethic and glorification of freedom–often carries an unstated but powerful message of liberation that transcends the personal. Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” was a highlight at the Cubby Bear: Cash took Dylan’s whine of self-denial and transformed it into a resounding anthem of self-reliance. With only a few modifications in the lyrics and setting, Cash might have been Woody Guthrie refusing to be compromised by a rapacious dust bowl land speculator, or Lightnin’ Hopkins defying the Captain’s lash and stealing away from the chain gang to find a better place down the road.

The spirituality that haunts Cash’s music becomes manifest when you least expect it. “Ring of Fire” (written by his wife, June Carter Cash, and Nashville-based songwriter Merle Kilgore) is one of the most powerful songs in Cash’s repertoire, with its angelic background voices and implied references to the apocalyptic hellfires prophesied in Revelation. A similar scriptural association initially caused Jerry Lee Lewis to balk at recording “Great Balls of Fire,” which he considered blasphemous.

The difference between Lewis and Cash, however, is instructive. Lewis, a cousin of Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, has made (and nearly destroyed) a career by wrestling obsessively with the contradictions between his fundamentalist upbringing and his worldly profession. Cash, secure in his faith and endowed with a poet’s understanding, immerses himself in the transcendent implications of visions of apocalypse–“Into the Mystic,” as Van Morrison would say–and comes out cleansed.

All of which should not imply that a Johnny Cash show is an exercise in existential brooding. At the Cubby Bear he jubilantly returned to his Sun Records glory days to re-create the beautiful “Home of the Blues” and the anthemic “Get Rhythm,” complete with its anachronistic references to a (presumably black) shoeshine boy with a “big wide grin” who merrily repeats his motto, “Get rhythm when you get the blues,” as he works.

June Carter Cash and the Carter family took over the middle of the show, and they continued in that same exuberant mode. The Carters are a country music institution dating back to the late 1920s when the family was recorded by RCA in Briston, Tennessee, on the same sessions that introduced Jimmie Rodgers to the world. Although matriarch Maybelle passed away in 1978, June and her sisters Anita and Helen carry on the tradition; they’re joined these days by Rosie Carter, June’s daughter by a previous marriage. Their show is primarily a trip down Carter-family memory lane, with Helen demonstrating the flailing guitar technique known as the “Carter scratch” and the entire clan pitching in with gusto on folkie chestnuts and hymns.

Anita Carter missed the Cubby Bear show (she has an allergic reaction to cigarette smoke), but her solo spot was admirably taken over by Rosie–perhaps the most soulful white woman singer I’ve heard since the heyday of Bonnie (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) Tyler. Rosie took the lead on “Amazing Grace” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” (“Rosie gon’ git down with the blews,” June intoned in her reedy Tennessee drawl) and contributed a verse on the family’s round-robin tribute to Maybelle, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She came dangerously close to blowing her own family off the stage: her sandpaper/sweet soprano seemed capable of unlimited power and gut-wrenching, bluesy intensity. Her spellbinding verse of “Circle” sounded as if she were screaming salvation, en route home to heaven from hell on earth.

When Cash rejoined the family onstage, his gift for giving cliches new meaning was again apparent. His act with June is mostly a celebration of their love. Such a public display might be suspect, but these two have had a bond through the years that would be rare anywhere, let alone in the world of show biz, where relationships are often as mercurial as success. It was June who helped him kick a drug habit that almost destroyed him in the 60s, and she also converted him from rebel self-destruction to Christianity. To see them flirt, fuss, and mug together onstage is to be reminded that family values have nothing to do with political platitudes and a lot to do with survival through hard times.

Cash is often criticized for his Neanderthal politics, but his and June’s rendition of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” was feminist before feminist was cool. Where Hardin sang, “If I worked my hands in wood, would you still love me? / Answer right away, “Yes I would, I’d put you above me,”‘ Johnny and June have for years made a subtle but profound change: Cash sings the first two-thirds of the verse, whereupon his wife shoots him a tender but meaningful look and answers, “Don’t be above me.”

It’s his ability to stand for foursquare values without sounding preachy or self-righteous that allows Cash to proclaim his religious faith and still retain his honky-tonk following. Jack Clement’s “The Greatest Cowboy of Them All” is a “cowboy spiritual” that by rights should be unbearably precious. The Great Cowboy is of course Jesus, who rescues strays and watches over his herd with a brave, unwavering hand: “My cowboy hat’s off / To the Man who rode the donkey / He’s the greatest cowboy of them all.”

Such images are remindful of the iconography of the truckers’ world, where you can buy oil paintings of Jesus leading terrified truck drivers out of storms and God is referred to as the Great Dispatcher in the Sky. Like the folk song “Fiddler’s Green,” which describes a salty sailors’ heaven where the angels look suspiciously like pretty barmaids and rum bottles grow on trees, these are images of comfort for hardworking people trying to stave off their fears. You’re moved by the childlike faith, couched in the rough tones and words of the simple workingman, the same way you’re moved by the crude poetry painstakingly carved into the headstones in a country graveyard.

Still, it’s hard to accept some of the contradictions in Cash’s music and persona. Here’s a man who contributes to campaigns for Native American rights, then embraces religious and political beliefs that decimated their culture, who affects solidarity with social outlaws, then delivers paeans to the American flag and stumps for conservative political candidates (although, unlike his good buddy Billy Graham, he’s said to hold Nixon in contempt).

But these are frightening times: there’s a growing sense that the values of spiritual redemption and individual dignity have been lost in both public discourse and private life. It’s not Cash’s fault, nor is it the fault of mainstream folks who hunger for those values, if reactionaries have been the only ones canny enough to address them. Meanwhile the populists who should be spiritual descendants of such vibrant souls as Mother Jones and Woody Guthrie pursue the mad goal of trying to be all inoffensive things to all politically correct people.

There’s not much of the wisdom of myth in goals like that, and I think that’s why songsters like Cash have retained their appeal and continue to speak to us through the vicissitudes of fashion and cultural trends. The archetypes he evokes are both personal and grandly human; despite their religious and cultural trappings, they ultimately transcend ideology as all great mythology does, and so provide comfort. As the century winds down toward an uneasy close and the social contracts that once sheltered us from evil seem to be shattering, as self-righteousness takes the place of civil discourse and we find ourselves caught increasingly between the poles of authoritarian rigidity and hedonistic emptiness, we again turn our attention to a lone circuit rider, God-haunted and resolute, moving slowly through the darkness toward salvation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sara Sipes.