Johnny Cash’s voice never changed from song to song, but that’s because it had everything it needed: joy, anger, contentment, years. That stark, matter-of-fact voice somehow conveyed whatever emotion was necessary for the song.
In the case of “I Still Miss Someone,” that emotion was just plain sadness. Despite the chugging drums and jaunty tempo, this is a bummer of a song: the narrator can’t do anything enjoyable because he misses his former lover. Cash obviously made some amazing music over the years, and much of it was more accomplished and complex than “I Still Miss Someone,” but that’s kind of what I like about this song. It’s so simple, so direct. I miss somebody, so I can’t do anything. And it sucks.
There appear to be a million versions of “I Still Miss Someone” out there (I first got to know the song because of Robert Earl Keen’s rendition), but some of my favorites are Cash’s duets. There’s the backstage toss-off with Dylan, the polished TV version with Joni Mitchell, and this very sweet one with the incomparable Willie Nelson. In every version, no matter the level of formality or the complexity of the arrangement, the song sounds the same: sad, beautiful, and unmistakably the work of the fabulous Johnny Cash.
It’s amazing what a little harmony can do.
I’d probably like “Claudette” if it wasn’t sung by the Everly Brothers, but I don’t think I would love it. Those two voices, so reedy but so subtantial, give the song an electric energy that I can’t imagine another artist providing. Roy Orbison wrote the song, and as much as I love Roy Orbison, I’m glad he passed it on to the Everlys. His voice is far too beautiful for this song, which only requires accuracy.
I could have picked many Everly Brothers songs, because they had so many great ones: “Cathy’s Clown,” “When Will I Be Loved,” and, of course, “Bye Bye Love.” But the intro of “Claudette” gives it the edge. That rapid-fire acoustic guitar always takes me by surprise, and the fact that it’s followed only a second or two later by the Everlys’ tight harmony makes it even more unnerving. It’s one of those songs that seems to power itself, to capture momentum from thin air.
Bob Dylan referred to his own aesthetic as “that thin, that wild mercury sound,” and I think that term could apply to the Everlys as well. As bold as their sound is, there’s also something skittish about it, as if it’s about to run away from them. It’s a sound that apparently seemed appealing to everybody they influenced, from the Beatles to Simon and Garfunkel (who covered “Bye Bye Love” at a reunion show in Central Park). But the Everly Brothers owned it, and they still do.
Just as Harry Belafonte’s “Jump In the Line” makes me think of Beetlejuice, “Johnny B. Goode” makes me think of Back to the Future. Which is, again, kind of a shame. Chuck Berry revolutionized music by incorporating rhythm-and-blues into pop music, and what comes to mind? A duck-walking Alex P. Keaton. Can I blame television? Let’s blame television.
Anyway, because I was obsessed with Back to the Future as a child, I was obsessed with “Johnny B. Goode.” You may recall that the film posited that Chuck Berry didn’t revolutionize music; Marty McFly was responsible because he played this song within earshot of Chuck’s cousin Marvin. Many have criticized this plot point as being straight-up racist, another one of writer/director Robert Zemeckis’s revisionist histories that places a white guy at the forefront of something he had nothing to do with. I think that’s a pretty fair criticism.
Reading over some materials before working on this post, I realized that I never thought about Chuck Berry’s connection to country music. I always thought of Berry as turning rhythm-and-blues, as well as straight-up blues, into pop music for the kids. But there’s plenty of country in there too, and once I learned that “Maybellene” was a conscious rewrite of country star Bob Wills’s “Ida Red”, it all fell into place.
As for my own Chuck Berry fascination, my Berry-loving dad gave me the ..Berry Is On Top album on cassette. (I also remember asking him what the “drivers” in the lyrics refer to, and him explaining that they’re part of a train.) Despite having terrible cover art and a grammatically questionable title, it’s a terrific collection of Berry’s singles up to its 1959 release. Not every hit is here—no “School Day” or “No Particular Place To Go”—but it’s something of a rock ‘n’ roll history lesson. Berry’s influence is so embedded in our culture that his music doesn’t immediately register as influential, but in many ways, this is where it all began.