Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine

Confession: I’m not really in quarantine. I used the term because it was shorter and easier to write than “statewide stay-at-home order,” which is technically what I’m living under. Second confession: “quarantine” sounds way more provocative and interesting than “stay-at-home-order.” So I took a writer’s liberty to be interesting rather than strictly accurate.

Johnny Cash.

But it’s true that I am playing Johnny Cash songs. I laboriously pick them out, chord-by-chord, on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in the basement. Because one thing I have, in a life where many things have been taken away and disrupted by COVID-19, is the gift of time. Freed from commuting, or post-work social obligations, or visiting the gym, I suddenly have more hours in each day. Hours which I can choose to use in unprecedented ways.

I bought my first – and only –  set of guitar picks in Austin, TX. Learning how to play guitar had been one of those things, like running another 10K race or understanding how to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, that I always meant to get around to doing. But after I came back from Texas, guitar-less, the picks literally sat in my desk drawer for almost a decade. Not forgotten, exactly. I prefer to think they were waiting. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Much of the world suddenly found itself at home. On a whim, I rifled through my desk drawer. And I found my guitar picks, the shiny plastic packaging unopened, just as I had placed them there on a long-ago summer afternoon. 

Take your pick.

The six picks all have a stained glass motif, reminiscent of church windows, in each of their designs. Since it is Holy Week, I chose the pick showing Christ crucified. I don’t know if that decision was religious or irreverent, but I went with it.  

I start with the basics. The last time I’d attempted to learn an instrument was under duress. I was five or six years old and my mother dragged me to a neighbor’s house so I could take piano lessons. I dutifully stuck at it and squeaked through a couple recitals over the years, but it never became a passion. Now, however, things were different. The quest for musical proficiency was a voluntary undertaking. And with the help of YouTube, I intended to teach myself.

I sat down to attempt my first lesson. By way of internet browsing I discovered a tutorial on a three-chord foundation that will lend itself to a wide variety of songs . I propped my laptop up on the coffee table, watched the videos, and tried to strum along. Feeling the need for a visual reference, I printed out a diagram with the foundational chords: G major. C major. D major. I glanced back and forth from the diagram to my hand placement. My fingers strained to reach across the fretboard. The guitar strings cut into the soft flesh at my fingertips; my skin had not yet grown calloused and inured to the pressure. 

If my hands seemed too short, my fingernails were too long. I’d never been one for manicures or even particularly long nails, but nevertheless, the length prevented me from fully pressing down each string. Even to my untrained ear, my chords sounded wonky. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and trimmed the nails on my left hand nearly to the quick. Then, for symmetry, I cut the nails on my right hand. Thus I made my first sacrifice: vanity. 

I futzed with playing the chords a little more. The sounds I produced edged closer to resembling something musical. But I hadn’t made a song, yet. I hadn’t even made notes. For inspiration, I decided to take a break and watch footage of Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. You know, the one where he sets his red Stratocaster on fire and then smashes it onstage. The Strat which he had painted himself. And the performance during which one of the most legendary images in rock n’roll history is captured, when Jimi kneels in offering, his beautiful guitar in flames. (Side note: that picture was taken by a 17-year-old who cut school to go to the festival. True story.)

Anyway, watching that footage on the first night I picked up a guitar was a mistake. I could practice for 100 years and never come close to touching Hendrix’s talent. Thus my second sacrifice: pride. 

I had no choice but to begin at the beginning. Reflecting that plucking at chords at random may not be the best way to make progress, I decided to try a song. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” can be played with three basic chords. It’s a song I’m familiar with, lyrics and all. And thanks to the deliberate, steady chord progression that Cash is known for, I know I won’t have to play particularly quickly. 

I get out the first chord. G major. It’s a fairly forgiving finger position, and the sound comes out warm and mellow. Then there’s C major, a bit brighter, sharper, that requires more stretching of my fingers as I struggle to get them into place. And finally D major, my favorite of the three, which produces a sound that seems at once familiar and little funky. 

And I’m playing. And singing. Slowly. Painfully. But its recognizable as pieces of a song. 

These are my beginning steps. My first chords. My first music in which I both play and sing. And with the uncertainty and with the discovery there is a wobbling feeling of joy. 

I’m a long way from having the chops to jam with Jimi Hendrix. But in time, I might be able to play along with Bob Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And Eddie Vedder doesn’t know it, but he and I are doing duets on Tuesday when I start to tackle “Release.” (I dare you to read the lyrics, close your eyes and listen to Vedder’s vocals, stick around for the psychedelic vibes of the song’s second half, and not feel something.)

Life is not always a line. Sometimes we circle back, pick up what was left behind, and find ourselves at the beginning again. And when so much of life as we’ve known it has ended, the beginning is not a bad place to be. 

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