Fans of Bob Dylan found it impossible to understand why he would sing a duet with Johnny Cash, at least until they heard “Girl from the North Country.” I recall the kitchen where Nashville Skyline played almost half a century ago, but not who owned the house or even where it was—only that I’d hitchhiked there. That was the year Cash became best known for the chintzy novelty song “A Boy Named Sue.” Still, my ears perk up when “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” or “The Man Comes Around” crackles through my car radio. If there’s an American song book a century from now, they ought to be included.

Cash was a mythic figure in American folk culture long before he died in 2003. He was not the outlaw he pretended to be (he never spent longer than a night in jail), just a hard-working...


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