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Johnny Cash's 'Big River'

Johnny Cash on the Grand Ole Opry in 1962

Johnny Cash was a boyhood hero of mine. When I was 9 and 10 years old I would spend hours singing his songs and imitating the way he played the guitar. I even enlisted my mother to help me transcribe all the lyrics off of his albums. He sang about prisons, trains, about love lost and love found. One of my favorite songs of his is "Big River."

The rhythmic phrasing and vocal performance by Cash in "Big River" is remarkable; its energy and drive replaces any need for drums or percussion. Cash's own guitar strumming riff was quite memorable as well. He strummed up the neck with a dynamic crescendo.

Luther Perkins and his electric guitar playing are also indispensable elements of what makes this an amazing song. The licks give both rhythmic support for what Cash was doing, and in some places compliment the bass. But the tic-tac was quite historic for country guitar, and his sound that he invented for Cash's Tennessee Two produced a great effect.

As a professional musician, I knew Johnny Cash, worked with him a number of times and was invited into his home. He died Sept. 12, 2003.

Kris Kristofferson wrote of him, "He's a poet, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a pusher, he's a pilgrim and a preacher." Inspired by this quote, and the music and life of Johnny Cash, I composed a classical piano trio called "Poets and Prophets." Today I perform it in concerts with his daughter, Rosanne Cash. "Big River" is simply revolutionary. You must hear it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark O'Connor
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