The Masculinity Debate Needs Johnny Cash

America’s young men are disaffected and lonely. But lack of manliness is not the problem.

As I write this, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison spins on the record player, filling my living room with the driving, train-like rhythms of one of America’s greatest storytellers. Originally released in 1968, it’s one of the dozen vintage Cash albums we inherited when a friend from our small working-class community moved to be closer to her children.

Moments into the eponymous “Folsom Prison Blues,” a lyric catches my attention:

When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.

And there it is: a voice from the past describing the past few weeks of horror in the United States. From Buffalo, New York, to Uvalde, Texas, to Highland Park, Illinois, we are once again grappling to understand what has become an all-too-common atrocity: senseless mass shootings by disaffected, violent young men.

As a mother to a 16-going-on-37-year-old son, I think a lot about the state of manhood in American society and the evangelical church. Much has been made of the excesses of John Wayne masculinity, but I wonder if it’s time for a conversation about Johnny Cash masculinity.

While The Duke is synonymous with true grit, masculine bravado, and dominance, The Man in Black offers an alternative vision—and perhaps a way forward in these deeply fragmented times.
Cash’s roots ran deep in the American South, and themes of poverty, religion, and all things Americana informed his music. His biggest hits include sentimental ballads about riding the rails, the mythical Wild West, and hard-working, hard-living men who miss their mamas.
But while …

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