Why this lesbian loved the Man in Black

Posted: September 17, 2003

RED.

That's the first color I think of when I think of the Man in Black. Red was the color of the Columbia Records labels on my grandparents' Johnny Cash records.

You might wonder what a lesbian who was born and raised in South Jersey has to do with Johnny Cash, the country music superstar who died Friday at 71. Well, my story probably is like that of a lot of kids who lived through the '60s, gay and straight.

Growing up, my brother and I often slept over at my grandparents' while my parents went off and did whatever parents do when the kids aren't around.

I'd eagerly grab records from the pile - quite modest compared to the stacks of CDs in my home now - and play them over and over. And there were plenty of good ones: Lefty Frizzell, Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash. Always Johnny Cash.

Back then, I was a hit-singles gal, so the songs I remember most were "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues" and (the now-politically incorrect) "A Boy Named Sue."

My grandparents' stereo was a huge wooden console - easily the most expensive piece of furniture in their tiny living room, so you know where their priorities lay. From the stereo, Cash's deep, gravelly, dark baritone and his rebellious rockabilly filled the room as we sat there listening. We'd sing along with Lefty and Eddy, but not Johnny. With Johnny, we listened.

Beyond his compositions, Cash broadened my horizons with the other songwriters he featured on his records, from Carl Perkins to Kris Kristofferson to Shel Silverstein, and right on down the line.

But listening to Cash records was only part of the enjoyment. While at my grandparents', I also got to watch his TV variety show, a cutting-edge program with such guests as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan - artists who became major figures in my own musical history.

Probably even more than the Beatles, Johnny Cash inspired me to learn the guitar. I've kept up that hobby my entire life, and it has led me to discover myriad singers and songwriters, from all walks of life, straight and gay. And through those discoveries, I've made lifelong friendships, straight and gay.

BUT WHY IS a lesbian from South Jersey writing about Johnny Cash? Like everyone else, I admired him for stretching boundaries, trying new things, shrugging off the critics and living life on his terms.

Also, like everyone, I loved his music. I miss him, and I am grateful for the many gifts he gave, and the many paths he led me on. *

Debbie Woodell is a Daily News sports desk editor. Her column, usually on lesbian and gay issues, appears here monthly. Send e-mail to

woodeld@phillynews.com.

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