My grandfather’s house stood on the corner of Beech Street in northeast Portland. The two-story home, shaded by tall and leafy trees, sat adjacent to a garage, a workspace filled with miscellaneous items—tools and pocket knives, stained driftwood, model airplanes, vases made of artillery shells from Vietnam, a wood stove. As a kid, my dad would sit and watch as my grandfather worked in the garage, building furniture from scratch. As he did, they would listen to records—the Kingston Trio, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley—and, most notably, Johnny Cash.
I’ve admired Johnny Cash my whole life. My father played his records on repeat, permeating every inch of our modest ranch-style Portland home, making his songs the soundtrack of my childhood. I would dance, along with my older brother, to “Big River” or “I Walk the Line.” I danced before I knew what the lyrics meant, bouncing up and down alongside our red brick fireplace to the trumpets and rhythm of “Ring of Fire,” grooving to Johnny’s authentic, rich, wholesome voice. Soon enough, I was singing along too—“I went down, down, down / and the flames went higher / and it burns, burns, burns / the ring of fire, the ring of fire.”
My grandfather was an authentic and honest man, warm and caring but tough and unwavering in his beliefs. I can imagine Johnny appealed to him for a number of reasons—for one, Johnny was genuine and real. He gained fame not because he was privileged, but because he was talented. In many ways, Johnny’s life mirrored that of my grandfather: both were born in the 1930s, and from a young age had to work as farm laborers to help their family make ends meet. Both had several siblings, and both enlisted in the Air Force around age 18.
Johnny always tended to remind me of my grandfather, as well as my childhood and hometown in Portland. And when I received my first iPod in fifth grade—a 2nd generation iPod Nano, handed down to me by my father—Johnny was on it.
One summer, on our way to our annual family vacation in Bend, Oregon, I listened to songs I hadn’t remembered hearing before, including “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.” I loved it; particularly, Johnny’s masterful ability to tell a story through a song, one about life and death and lessons learned. After singing the same chorus throughout the track, his emotional change in tone gives the song a somber, reflective end: “Don’t take your guns to town, son / leave your guns at home, Bill / Don’t take your guns to town.”
We played “A Boy Named Sue” on that trip as well. I sat in the back seat as we passed through the dry, sagebrush-covered High Desert of central Oregon, listening and admiring Johnny’s voice and charisma. One particular aspect of the song struck me: the applause and laughter in the recording. Dad told me Johnny performed the song at a prison, San Quentin, and that the cheering came from the audience of inmates.
Years later, I began collecting my own records, and I found both of Johnny’s prison albums in the budget vinyl section at a Portland record shop, among dusted and worn covers: At San Quentin and At Folsom Prison. The records were scratched and worn down, causing them to skip occasionally, and seemed to possess a life of their own, passed down from user to user. Yet, they still play, and they showcase Johnny’s authenticity and rebellious spirit. Particularly during “San Quentin,” when he sings, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you . . . San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.” He receives loud and rambunctious cheers from the prisoners throughout the track, and at its conclusion, says, “if any of the guards are still speaking to me, can I have a glass of water?” This is certainly who Johnny was: fearless, rebellious, and funny.
When December rolls around, we still listen to Johnny, usually when we decorate our freshly-cut tree with strings of white lights and eclectic ornaments, or on Christmas mornings when we sit together in the living room, drinking coffee in our pajamas and opening gifts. His Christmas album is emotional and spiritual, heavily influenced by gospel. It is a soundtrack that is distinct from other commercial holiday tunes. Johnny’s Christmas album is not played on Portland’s local Christmas radio station, nor is it played in retail stores. The songs feel unique and precious, tailored specifically to my family—to our times together, to my holiday memories at home.
After my grandfather died, we played Johnny’s music at his funeral. “Folsom Prison Blues” played along with photographs in the slideshow of my grandfather’s life, and I couldn’t help but think Johnny’s lines about “rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car” and “drinking coffee / and smokin’ big cigars” so perfectly complemented the photo of my grandfather as a working-class young man, posing for the camera on a dirt road in worn jeans and a white t-shirt. For the service’s finale, Johnny’s cover of “We’ll Meet Again” played amidst pictures of my grandfather in his later years—photos of him reading under the shade of the towering trees in his yard, photos of him at my soccer games throughout the years (he went to every one), photos of him at my brother’s high school graduation, and my own high school graduation. The last photo was an image of my grandfather on a grassy hill with sunshine at his back, paired with Johnny’s insistence that “we’ll meet again, some sunny day.”
Now, I can’t help but think of my grandfather when I hear Johnny, particularly when I hear “We’ll Meet Again.” On late Sunday evenings when I’m heading back to school in Corvallis from Portland, it will sometimes come on shuffle in my car, and I sit and listen in solitude—to Johnny’s voice, to my own mind replaying memories of my grandfather—as the sun sets and ethereal light shines through the clouds and pines, over the hills that line the road.
And last summer, as we made our annual road trip to Bend, Johnny played more frequently than usual, perhaps because the loss of my grandfather was still raw. We listened to one of his newer albums, American Recordings: a personal, emotional, and poetic album in which Johnny sings alone, just him and his acoustic guitar. As we drove down Highway 22, through the rich green forest and past glistening streams, “Like a Soldier” played over the speakers:
With the twilight colors falling / and the evening laying shadows / hidden memories come stealing from my mind / and I feel my own heart beating out / the simple joy of living / and I wonder how I ever was that kind.
We rode alongside the Santiam River, the spot where my grandfather used to take my dad fishing as a kid. I pictured them there, together, as the sunlight flickered through the trees and the river flowed along. I thought of my grandpa and the times we had spent together. I thought of our trips to the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls, where we would eat soft serve vanilla ice cream at the base of the water, feeling the mist kiss our cheeks. I thought of our summers spent outside at his house, playing baseball and lounging in the shade of his yard. I thought of our walks alongside the rocky shores of the Columbia River, and our picnic lunches at Blue Lake Park, drinking Capri Suns in our bathing suits and flip flops. And I thought of the times my brother and I spent in the garage with him, molding clay, drawing pictures with crayons, shooting pool, and watching him shuffle about and work, just as my father had when he was a kid. Johnny played on:
I’m like a soldier getting over the war / I’m like a young man getting over his crazy days / like a bandit getting over his lawless ways / I don’t have to do that anymore / I’m like a soldier getting over the war.
As we rode along and listened, I felt tears gather in my eyes, but I did my best to hold them back. Certainly, I felt the simple joy of living, overcome with a sense of gratitude for the precious moments I’ve had—as a child, with my family, and of course, with my grandfather. I knew my grandfather was with us then, in that moment, in our car on the way to the trip we take every year. And Johnny was with us, too.
Jada Krening was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. She is currently an undergraduate student at Oregon State University, studying political science, sociology, and writing. She is a reporter and editor of the OSU student newspaper, the Daily Barometer, which serves 30,000 students. She enjoys reading and writing and has a record collection. She still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but hopes to figure it out soon. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter: @jadakrening.