Johnny Cash’s 1961 “Tennessee Flat-Top Box”
In 1961, Johnny Cash recorded Tennessee Flat-Top Box, an intoxicatingly-charming song about a dark-haired youngster who played guitar in a small Texas town cabriolet. He cared for nothing in life, except playing his guitar: “He couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he didn’t care to make a dime, but give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time.”
A guy like would be scorned for many reasons in our society. Jocks wouldn’t like his athletic inability. Career men wouldn’t like his refusal to get a job and make money. A culture obsessed with a frenzied array of activities would disdain his lack of diversity.
Of course, he might gain respect for his relentless effort to succeed with his guitar, like Olympic athletes who are admired every four years for the sacrifice they make to a single sport.
But I doubt the dark-haired boy concentrated on his guitar to gain respect or admiration. Such base self-love would gut the charm of the song. The boy loved playing his guitar, whether or not he got paid, whether or not he would be famous for it. Hence he played in a small Texas cabriolet. Constantly, lovingly.
And was real good at it.
He mesmerized the girls who came from all over (from the border of Texas to Austin) to hear him play. They would hock their jewelry to get money for the trip, then come to the cabriolet, “snapping fingers, tapping toes, and begging him don’t stop.” One day he disappeared and showed up later on television, playing on the hit parade.
The dark-haired boy played for the love of playing the Tennessee flat-top box guitar. He eventually made money at it, but that wasn’t his goal, judging from the absorbing message sent by the lyrics and the simple tune.
Guitar playing is an art, even if less sophisticated than playing the piano or painting. It isn’t pursued for the sake of fame and money any more than karate is taken-up for the purpose of toughening the soles of one’s feet.
Art is the application of skill, concentration, and imagination in an effort to create a product. But most of all, art is tenderly caring about something outside yourself. The key to art, therefore, is self-forgetfulness. The artist forgets himself as he creates, forgetting about his petty concerns and desires, not worrying about his ambitions and dreams.
And because self-forgetfulness is the highest calling in life, the artist often seems aloof because he doesn’t care about the things most people care about — themselves. He’s fixed on his craft.
And is rarely, if ever, fixed on himself. For the muses don’t talk to the self-obsessed. They talk to the simple, art-loving people, like the dark-haired boy in the small Texas border town.