There is a solid clutch of musicians out there who simply seemed fated to end up with a six-string under their arm and there could be no other way for their life to unfold. Even the most conservative and levelheaded careers advisor would have looked at Johnny Cash and Keith Richards and thought that they not only stood a chance of making it in music but moreover that music was their only viable option.
Aside from this kinship of being physical embodiments of musical iconography, the two artists are not an immediate pairing that you’d make. The fuzz-pedalled furore of Richards is just not quite Cash’s tobacco-chewing style.
However, when Richards shuns the pedals and plug-ins of electricity, Cash’s influence on his style suddenly comes to the fore. “The first record I ever heard by Johnny Cash,” Richards declares on his YouTube channel, “Was ‘Lonesome Whistle’, a Hank Williams song. It was on EP with four songs and a very sparse sound.”
Richards then continues to fondle an imaginary acoustic and explains how the intonation of Cash’s strumming hand has an effect on his own style when he goes back to the old school. “Sometimes the acoustic guitar is a funny thing,” Richards declares. “You can hit it right down by the bridge and get one sound, hit it full in the middle and get this broad sound, hit it high on the neck and you get this other ringing sound.”
The Rolling Stones man describes this wayward fret strumming as being the equivalent of a treble and bass dial on an electric, and there is no doubting that Cash was a master of it. The late country star could make an acoustic sound like a one-man orchestra, coaxing up mystic forces with his wandering yet always unflinching hand.
Richards got into Cash at an early age: “I was a Johnny Cash freak,” Keith Richards once said, having first heard Cash’s music as a teenager in England. “Luther Perkins, his guitar player, was amazing. Johnny’s singing was, too. They taught me about the importance of silence in music – that you don’t have to play all over the song.”
Keith Richards was also among those to salute The Man In Black the career retrospective record, The Essential Johnny Cash that also featured Paul McCartney, Bono and Elvis Costello to name but a few.
Aside from the influence that Cash had on his guitar playing, it is also clear that he taught Richards and everyone else who followed in his footsteps, a thing or two about crafting an identity for yourself as a musician. Both men are music luminaries, and they’re also figures that seem to have crawled out from the swamp of guitar music like benevolent mutants.
You can check out a clip of Keith Richards and Johnny Cash along with an ensemble band playing the Booker T & M.G.’S classic ‘Green Onions’ at the Hall of Fame induction of Leo Fender, in what is one of music scintillating ‘spot the music legend’ challenges online.