Johnny Cash died yesterday. It made me think. It made me reflect. It made me unreasonably sad.
My childhood seems like a Walton's episode in some ways. I grew up on a family-run cattle ranch. Not many of those exist anymore. Interest rates, taxes, low cattle prices and greed have forced most family owned ranches to sell out to huge corporations who use the ranches as a tax write-off. I grew up listening to old-time country music...Hank Williams SR!!, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and of course Johnny Cash. On weekend evenings a group of friends that belonged to a group called the Old Time Fiddlers would come over with their families and we'd eat together, play country and blue grass music and just have fun. Neighbors helped each other out. When our ranch needed to gather the cows and brand, the neighbors would come and help us...arriving before dawn in horse trailers and cattle trucks. They'd help us, and then when their turn came to need extra hands, we'd load up in the dark and drive to their place to help them. The whole family worked every day to make the ranch succeed. Men, older kids, and the women who like the outside type of work would care for the cows, do the annual hay harvesting, and do the endless upkeep on the ranch buildings, equipment, and fences. The domestic-oriented women and older folks would cook and deliver meals, coffee, ice tea, and run the numerous errands to the ranch supply stores. The littler kids would hand raise the calves and lambs that were orphaned or abandoned by their mothers. Everyone had a job and a purpose and we all did it together.
It wasn't idyllic. My dad was an active alcoholic. There were many family fights and lots of the shame and fear that comes from living in a family like that. Money was often tight, and we never seemed to completely fit in with the "town" families, who never went into a store with cow-shit on their boots or drove a truck filled with hay. My town friends, while very excited about riding our horses, didn't appreciate that we had to walk across a manure filled barnyard to get to the horse pen. They thought the baby calves and lambs that we were constantly feeding from a bottle were cute, but they were grossed out by the piles of poop that the cute babies left behind. They couldn't understand how I could ignore the dead cow in the meadow that my dad hadn't drug to the boneyard yet. Somehow I always felt like I had manure on my shoes and hay in my hair.
Ah...but back to Johnny Cash. All of the ostracism, all of the fights and sleepless nights would be forgotten when my handsome okie dad would pick up his guitar and, accompanied by our good friend Homer McLain on the fiddle, begin to sing Folsom Prison Blues. He'd imitate a train whistle, just like Johnny did in his song, and he'd look at me and we'd laugh together.