Pop Goes The Country Vol. 32: Johnny Cash – “A Boy Named Sue” (1969)

Johnny Cash
Warning: Language

Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.

For the past several volumes of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ve explored country music’s biggest crossover hits by exploring the individual stories behind the songs. Of course, this feature is also an exercise in mapping out the general scope of country music’s landscape, and while several volumes were dedicated to exploring the rockabilly movement and Nashville Sound era, it’s time to look at where country music later stood in the 1960s.

As mentioned before, the rock boom flattened Nashville, commercially, but the industry learned from the experience. Country music’s growing strength allowed it to take 1964’s British Invasion, which saw the Beatles and other English rock bands grow in prominence, in its stride. For one, Buck Owens became an outspoken Beatles fan, and the feeling proved mutual when, in 1965, the band sung a version of Owens’s “Act Naturally,” sung by drummer Ringo Starr.

But country music’s growth throughout the ‘60s extends beyond the music. America’s Civil Rights movement divided the United States amid the Cold War and the lasting trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Southerners were incensed when Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, had advanced the Civil Rights legislation Kennedy had once championed. Elsewhere, folk music maintained its active role in the Civil Rights movement, and stars like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were prominent in the movement during the early ‘60s.

Like with Owens and the Beatles, worlds would collide again when Johnny Cash appeared with Dylan at 1964’s Newport Folk Festival. The two artists came from different backgrounds, but shared several musical heroes. Ironically, Dylan had grown up hearing mainstream country while Cash found solace in hearing folk performers.

Of course, Cash himself already had a reputation with country and rock and folk fans. He took up a cause for Native Americans with his Bitter Tears album and single, “Ira Hayes,” offending the Ku Klux Klan enough to where they slandered Cash’s then-wife, Vivian, for being of Italian descent and burned a cross on his lawn.

Looking back at the general scope of the country music industry, this was also a time when RCA signed Charley Pride, a commercial risk that Chet Atkins knew had to be carefully marketed. But he also realized Pride’s traditional style could win over even country’s most conservative fans, who disliked the slick Nashville Sound. Despite early problems as an African-American artist, Pride gained endorsements from established singers and won over country fans by giving them the kind of hard country music that many performers seemingly abandoned by the end of the decade.

Along with this, 1966 saw antiwar and antidraft protests spread across America’s college campuses, causing Nashville to strike back. Dave Dudley’s “Vietnam Blues,” for example, defended the war and encouraged its composer, West Point graduate and Army chopper pilot Kris Kristofferson, to consider a career change from soldier to songwriter. Meanwhile, Columbia Records refused to release Marty Robbins’s “Ain’t I Right,” a song that branded antiwar protesters as communist sympathizers. Similar songs during this time questioned the patriotism of many Americans. Some artists, like Willie Nelson, saw things differently, but Nashville didn’t notice.

Furthermore, the hippie movement, with its support of recreational drug use, loud rock music, antiwar protests and long-haired male supporters, polarized older generations in America, including – you guessed it – country music fans. Strangely, though, many of these “hippies” loved country music.

Still, the division led on. President Nixon’s White House handlers thought exploiting country music’s patriotic base (the “Silent Majority”) gave the president an advantage, politically. In 1970, Nixon invited Cash and his band to play the White House. The president had two specific requests – Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac” – yet Cash, claiming later that he didn’t have time to learn either song, sang his own material, including “What Is Truth,” a song defending the youth culture Nixon shunned.

In a sea of division across America, Cash stood as a lone figure who won fans over with plain-spoken honesty. Conservative fans appreciated his values while younger fans, whose own prejudices led them to write off most country fans as “hillbillies” or “rednecks,” appreciated his rebelliousness.

Despite a longstanding battle with drug addiction, Cash’s popularity only faded slightly in the ‘60s, with ‘67 seeing him right back on top with “Jackson,” one of many duets with (still not then-wife) June Carter. A plan to record a live album at Folsom Prison in 1968 only solidified Cash’s reputation as universally appealing, and was truly his next big break. With a chance to host his own television show, too, Cash was truly an even bigger superstar then than he was in the ‘50s.

There are conflicting stories surrounding how Cash came across the focus of today’s discussion, “A Boy Named Sue.” According to Robert Hilburn in Johnny Cash: The Life, the day after the infamous session where Cash recorded songs with Dylan (which, sadly, only resulted in one song, “Girl From The North Country,” on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album), he received a call from music publisher Don Davis, who had tipped him off to “Jackson” earlier. He told Cash he had a song that would be a natural fit for him – a song written by Playboy cartoonist and songwriter Shel Silverstein, whose earlier parody, “25 Minutes To Go,” was a hit at Folsom.

Other sources say that Cash heard “A Boy Named Sue” at what’s called a guitar pull, which is a chance for writers to meet up and sing their songs to one another. Silverstein and Cash were at the meeting when Silverstein performed the song, which he wrote after a conversation with his friend, Jean Shepherd, who relayed his childhood dismay at being made fun of for what other kids perceived to be a “girl’s name.”

Either way, Silverstein, who had increasingly dabbled in songwriting since the late ‘50s, wrote “A Boy Named Sue” and released it on his 1969 Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs album.

Cash was amused by the zany tune about a father’s odd way of teaching his son to stand up for himself, and he promised to record the song as soon as got back from the West Coast. After all, his next prison concert at San Quentin wasn’t far away. However, his wife, now June Carter Cash, placed a copy of the song in a stack of material Johnny was taking with him on the trip, just on the slim chance he might want to use it in his show.

Although Cash was undergoing a spiritual reformation at the time, he sang the song word-for-word and unrehearsed in his performance at San Quentin. Instead of going with the standard “son of a gun” for one particular line, Cash went ahead and sang the naughty version instead, just as it had been written, which Columbia later covered up with a loud tone. The prisoners loved it, of course, and while no one expected a song like this to capture mainstream attention, even with Cash’s popularity, “A Boy Named Sue” was certified Gold by the RIAA before it even hit No. 1 as a proper single.

Record producer Bob Johnston was the head of Columbia’s Nashville office for about a year, but after succeeding Don Law, Johnston managed to stir the pot considerably. “I remember Johnny Cash walked in one day and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to cut an album in prison and nobody would let me.’ I was told I’d be fired if I did it, it would ruin his career.” This statement was later disproved by Clive Davis, who reported the label was supportive of the decision and couldn’t drop an artist of Cash’s stature.

Still, there’s something to be said for Johnston’s rebellious attitude toward the endeavor. While possibly also false, Johnston later said, “We cut Folsom Prison and it sold millions. I got told I would be fired if I did it again. I took him to San Quentin and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ knocked the [Rolling] Stones out of number one.” Unlike Billy Sherrill, Johnston never looked for songs for his artists. “I just let them do what the fuck they wanted to do, I figured Cash knew more than me.” Fiction or not, it’s certainly hard to disagree with the notion that letting Cash do what he wanted to, artistically, was bad.

That particular performance was not Cash’s first time at San Quentin. He started his tradition of prison concerts in 1957 at a state facility in Huntsville, Texas. He played San Quentin the following year, and unbeknownst to him, a young Merle Haggard was in the audience. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll talk about how Lynn Anderson never promised you a “rose garden.”

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

– As mentioned before, quote attributions for part of the formation of “A Boy Named Sue,” as well as the bulk of the information presented here, are attributed to Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, specifically the chapter “The Johnny Cash Show And Superstardom.”
– Further quote attributions for Bob Johnston were taken from How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A. by Michael Kosser, specifically the chapter “Strings and Power Saws.”
– Background regarding the political environment in the 1960s was taken from Will The Circle Be Unbroken by the Country Music Hall of Fame, specifically the chapter “When Two Worlds Collide” by Rich Kienzle.

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