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More than 40 years ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow called television programming "the vast wasteland." But if TV is really that bad, what's radio? The medium has become one cookie-cutter station after another, usually because Clear Channel likes to stick with the same model. But this leaves a lot of great performers and even entire genres twisting in the wind.
It finally got to Mark Stuart.
"I didn't like what I was hearing in country music, and I decided to start doing something about it," Stuart says. "It's like they say -- if you don't like something, change it yourself. They don't allow good songs on the radio anymore. Country's gone pop. You might hear a remake of a good song. But you might hear 'Achy Breaky Heart.' The outlook's so bad, Garth Brooks is retro now. It's been shitty since the 1980s."
So Stuart began rounding up the troops. Joey Galvan, Deane Cole, and Clark Stacer were, like Stuart, playing in bands in the San Diego area, and they were receptive to his idea of taking the music of the great country stars and updating it with a rock sound. In 1995, they formed a band and summed up the idea succinctly in the name they chose: The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash.
"We were just playing around at home and came up with the moniker, and I figured I better get permission before I start putting down music, so I wrote [Cash] a letter, sent him some music, and he gave the OK. Actually, he already knew about us. His bass player used to have basses made in San Diego, so he brought some of our stuff to Johnny Cash. When I heard back from the man, he was naming off all these songs we did. I felt like the man knew everything after that, like he probably knew what I had for breakfast."
Evidently, Stuart believes Cash is omniscient. His voice is filled with a strange brew of pride, hope, and sheer fan-boy jubilation when he speaks of the original "Man in Black." And that deep love of Cash and his contemporaries comes through in the band's music.
The Bastard Sons' latest record, last year's Distance Between, sounds like some combination of Uncle Tupelo, the Bastard Sons' patriarchal namesake, and the best parts of outlaw country's highway songs and honky-tonk cryin'-in-your-beer ballads. The opening number, "Monte Carlo," would be a number-one smash hit on country radio, if country radio recognized anything other than cheese. Then the band pulls off the obligatory Cash cover, "Long Black Veil," with the correct sense of reverence; it's tough to do a song any other way when lyrics include: "But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil, she cries over my bones." That respect for the Cash classic ties in to Stuart's appreciation for country music's golden age.
"The '60s, for me, were when I think country music was great," Stuart says. "All them young Turks were out there. In 1968, Johnny Cash had the number-one TV show and the number-one album. Now, do you think he'd be able to do that today? Would anyone?"
Likely not. After all, you can barely even hear an old country great on the radio anymore. Our own local country station, as with similar entities across the country, seems to care only for the latest slick Nashville offering. Stuart remains perplexed as to why the radio crawls with classic-rock stations, but a classic-country station exists only in his dreams.
"Once in a while, they'll have the country music hours on some stations, and they'll play some of the greats, but nothing other than that. I guess old hippies listen to the radio more than old cowboys. I'm sure Merle Haggard would like to know the answer to that too, so he could maybe get paid. You think a 65-year-old man wants to tour around the country 300 days a year?"
Haggard, of course, is not the only old cowboy Stuart looks up to. He expressed sympathy for Cash's loss of June Carter Cash, his wife of more than 30 years, who died four months ago. His mood grew dimmer as he talked of the house in Tennessee that Cash and Carter had shared for most of that time -- a house Cash put up for sale shortly after his wife's death.
Asked whether he would buy the house if he had the money, Stuart answers: "I'd probably buy it and give it back to the family. That's what Johnny Cash did with Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison lived next door to him, and his house burned down, so Johnny paid to have it rebuilt and gave it to his family. Nice guy, eh?"
The conversation grows silent as he mulls over what a fine thing that would be. To give back to the Man in Black himself what no one else should have a right to own. After a moment, he comes out of his daydream with a chuckle. Daydreams feel right in such an idealized world, where one's heroes always keep what belongs to them and you can still flip through the radio and hear a Johnny Cash tune just like you could back in 1968.
"Yeah, that's probably what I'd do," Stuart says happily. "Give it back."
Less than 24 hours later, Johnny Cash died at the age of 71.