Editor’s note: We’re really excited about this recurring feature from the brilliant S.A., where every week she offers us a playlist culled from the best of American folk, country, blues, and more, along with a brief guide/introduction. So sit back, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, and hit play.
In a memorable segment for “This American Life” (here), Sarah Vowell names Johnny and June Carter Cash’s abiding romance “the greatest love story of the 20th century.” Borne of the single most famous family in Country music history, June Carter was already married when she met Cash backstage at the Grand Ole Opry—the same Cash who was addicted to pills and liquor, who dreamed one night of the hellish mariachi horns he arranged into Carter’s lyrical “Ring of Fire,” who she was to marry and leave a clean, happy, Christian life with, who was buried next to her just shy of four months after her death.
“Oh What A Good Thing We Had” is nestled in the middle of Johnny and June’s first joint album, Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter, released seventh months before their marriage and boasting a cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the raucous love song “Jackson.” The guitar jingles mime the platitudes Johnny and June croon to one another—“sunshine and showers” punctuating the “milk and honey”-essence of their love—except sung in the minor, notes descending, “gone bad.” Itself a great American tragedy, Oh What A Good Thing We Had sings as an in-joke with a punch-line occluded by the glitz of Country stardom and grime of country outlaws—a “long walk by the river” whose lead-up and fall-down we’ll never really get to know.
American music is at its best when it begs us to dance through our tragedies. Loneliness is borne not just from Dolly Parton’s child-killing tragedy ballads or Memphis Minnie’s plaintive moaning in “Crazy Crying Blues,” but from the Everly Brothers’ irreverent “Bye Bye Love,” the cloying “Tears on My Pillow” (sung by Little Anthony and the Imperials, who are memorialized not only by Olivia Newton John in Grease, but also by great American mythmaker Tom Waits in “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”), in the friendly intimation of the Girls of the Golden West: “oh darling, you’re breaking my heart.”
Bessie Banks reincarnates this deep-down heartbreak with her invective “Go Now,” where Barbara George taunts it, Waylon Jennings deflates it, and the great and powerful Linda Ronstadt refuses it outright. Already sanctioned a country classic by the time Gram Parsons performed it with the Burrito Brothers in 1969, “When Will I Be Loved” is usually a song of bombast; insistent, insolent, and really, really loud. Gram Parsons singing that tune is like Sonic Youth covering The Carpenters’ “Superstar”—he pleads with a jagged sadness that harbors the old defiance of the Country classics. It’s this veneer, this Johnny-and-June-jingle, that makes you want to move.