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Johnny Cash could have died a has-been, content with having made the journey from a shotgun shack in Kingsland, Ark., to a mansion on a hill in Montego Bay, Jamaica. If he instead left this world a legend, it was because of one thing: The Man in Black was unafraid to grow old in public.

It’s customary when writing about an elderly country singer to fib a bit and say that his voice has only grown richer with time. Never mind that the brand of grape that flows down at the honky-tonk won’t be any better next year—the old saw preferred by songwriters and critics alike is that a worn-out voice has in fact “mellowed like fine wine.” Whatever feelings are spared by such gentility, they aren’t the singer’s—he knows how he sounds, and he knows it won’t get any better.

Although the more reasonable types soon think about retiring to the ranch, there are other singers, no more deluded about their voices but braver, perhaps, or just more cussed, who aren’t planning on going down easy. They know that feeling outlives technique, that the heart continues to roam where the voice can no longer go—and that sometimes something beautiful comes of the striving. Now that the country singers who came of age in the ’50s and ’60s are in their 60s and 70s, it’s a good time to find out what grows from a voice gone to seed.

Sadly, the country-music industry’s treatment of its fading stars has been a minor scandal over the last few years. Former chart-toppers who appear regularly at the Opry can’t get played on country radio. Hall of Fame members can’t win big-label contracts. Change happens in every genre, of course, and there’s about as much reason for today’s country to sound the way it did 40 years ago as there was for the Nashville Sound of 1962 to echo the fiddle tunes Eck Robertson laid down in 1922. But when you find

46-year-old Vince Gill shaking his head and singing, “It’s a young man’s town” after little more than a quarter-century in the business, you can bet that whatever lip service is paid to its ostensible heroes, the new Nashville won’t be all that much help if you’re looking to keep up with folks who have been playing twice as long.

Even Cash revived his fortunes and cemented his reputation elsewhere, with a series of albums for Rick Rubin’s hipster-baiting, rock-leaning American Recordings. When Cash released his first disc on the label, in 1994, alternakids were ransacking their parents’ record collections for cultural touchstones. Tony Bennett and Mel Tormé, for example, were both in the process of being resuscitated. The difference with Cash’s revival was that, in the midst of the Age of Irony, nobody thought there was anything funny about it. He became fixed as an icon of a polyglot American music that, however diverse, still knew its roots. By the time Cash died last week at the age of 71, it seemed almost provincial to call him a country star.

Of course, in the decades leading up to his 1986 dismissal by Columbia, Cash was a Music City darling, his all-time hit-making stats placing him behind only Eddy Arnold and George Jones. And if there is one thing more sacred to Nashville than God, Mama, and home, it’s career. So when L.A.-based director Mark Romanek composed his celebrated video for Cash’s recent “Hurt,” he made sure it chronicled the undoing of the foremost of the biz’s eternal verities: The camera ruminates over the ruins that floodwaters have made of the House of Cash Museum until it fixes on the cracked glass of a sales award for Johnny Cash at San Quentin. You can almost hear the sighs of the Columbia label brass: That is just no way to treat a gold record.

A Nine Inch Nails cover, “Hurt” is not a brilliant piece of songwriting, but it was brilliantly recontextualized by Cash and his collaborators, who made over a painstakingly arranged artifact of early-’90s angst into a bleak vanitas for a man whose myth has grown larger than country music. By insisting that the fruits of his life’s work amounted to little in the end, Cash was able to push the emphasis back onto the things that are supposed to matter. He also made it known to millions of young music fans that there are artistic adventures only veterans can undertake, things that only old voices can say.

“Hurt” works because it catches Cash’s bass-baritone—never a fine instrument, but a famously strong one—well into its protracted breaking down; you can locate the tenderness through the chinks in his armor. Not only does the combination of pain and numbness that makes you want to slap Trent Reznor silly not seem self-indulgent when spoken by a voice as weathered as Cash’s, it in fact seems wholly genuine. A little wear is nothing for an honest person to be ashamed of.

Country’s central fiction—to be maintained as seamlessly as possible and at all costs—is that it’s possible for a listener to truly know an artist. It isn’t that the country star never adopts a persona—”the Man in Black” is clearly a contrivance—it’s that country fans expect the persona to become congruent with the person a performer always has been. Only a performer content to be strictly a jester, rather than one of the tragedians and romantics who guard the soul of the genre, should feel free to adopt a discrete alter ego—think of Minnie Pearl or Cledus T. Judd.

The country voice is the tie that binds one’s career to one’s life: Marilyn Manson can always scrub off the makeup, pull up a chair next to Jon Favreau, and act more or less civilized on Dinner for Five. In country music, there’s simply no equivalent act of transformation.

Aging performers in virtually every noncountry, nonblues genre try to hide the effects of time on their voices. Pavarotti pulls a Britney and lip-syncs in concert; Meat Loaf lets the harmonies of his backing vocalists suggest melodies whose every line he transmogrifies into a curdled, histrionic moan. The old dogs of rock ‘n’ soul make as if time somehow doesn’t apply to them: A 59-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis names an album Young Blood; a 70-something Ray Charles keeps the backing tracks reasonably up to date and has Quincy Jones make the case that his friend is the equivalent of “16 years old, and creatively, still just as fresh as when we first met…” Artier singers simply jump the gun, stooping while they’re still young: Sinatra made September of My Years, his concept album about aging, when he was 49—which, according to my calculations, was still the first week in August for him.

Some country stars try to hide, too, usually on budget-line re-recordings of earlier hits. Industry accounting not being known for its generosity, the songs that make your name don’t necessarily make you rich, so you re-cut them later for a more sympathetic label before you’re too old to pass for your earlier self. But on upfront, full-price, new recordings—nearly always made for way-off-Music Row indies—country’s more persistent performers are often much more willing than their noncountry counterparts to let it all hang out.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going for broke. If the aging voice’s strength lies in its vulnerability, its affect is often built on subtlety rather than passion. On last year’s Time, Ray Price’s baritone, which once boasted a shining upper register, sounded pretty smooth for its 76 years. But it strained as it neared middle C and descended more easily than it rose, coming to rest securely an octave or so lower.

For the title track, Price selected a masterly exercise in cliché-slinging, overwritten by tunesmith Max D. Barnes nearly to the point of parody, but reined in hard by an underemotive delivery. “Time is a monster,” Price recites, before continuing in song: “That lives in our clocks/It’s heartless and shows no remorse/Consuming our future as we fight/That hundred-year war.” The overburdened metaphors pile up, as again and again Price reaches for the highs only to wind inexorably back toward the lows in long, meandering phrases that are broken up into manageable steps. The effort implies that banality is simply universality that has been worn down and exhausted—not that misery is any easier to bear for being commonplace.

Known more for recitations than for crooning, Bill Anderson has always been a limited singer. Time has been kind to the texture of his voice, however. The trademark whisper that seemed slushy as a vehicle for romantic yearning on old hits such as 1963’s “8 x 10” lends itself perfectly to the memory-haunted title track of 2000’s A Lot of Things Different. A litany of specific regrets, great and small, that continue to torment the singer, the song hits its climax in a chorus that undoes the bravado normally mouthed by a man shrugging off the lessons of hindsight: “People say they wouldn’t change a thing even if they could/Oh, but I would…”

When Kenny Chesney cut the song for 2002’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, he shot that second line up an octave and let it ring. He is, as you’d expect, a far more limber vocalist than Anderson ever was, and the song fits nicely onto an album that, however lighthearted its title, was fairly obsessed with the passing of time to have been made by a guy in his mid-30s. But the difference in the quality of sorrow conveyed by Anderson’s original and by Chesney’s cover is roughly the difference between knowing that your life is drawing quietly to a close and coming to grips with the fact that you’ll never get your old mullet back.

Particularly during the wave of rediscovery that followed the folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, old-time-country and country-blues singers were allowed to show their age. But that’s because they were cast in the role of sages vouchsafing the secrets of the ancients to a new generation. Just as in contemporary Nashville, they weren’t permitted to be old in contemporary terms.

That attitude was clear when Asylum signed George Jones in the ’90s: “[W]e…

asked only that he do the record he would have done 20 years ago if he had been sober,” label president Evelyn Shriver wrote in the liner notes for Cold Hard Truth. Heralded as his return to hard country, the regret-drenched 1999 disc was a respectable effort, but a life-threatening drunk-driving accident the mercurial singer had shortly after laying down basic tracks raised the question of whether he’d delivered what Shriver had asked for. The follow-up, The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001, contained a risible disclaimer: “George Jones does not in any way condone drinking and driving and the inclusion of the song ‘Beer Run’ is not an endorsement of such behavior.”

It wasn’t until this year that Jones made his redemption record. The 24 tracks on the double-disc Gospel Collection are among the hoariest chestnuts in the sacred songbook, but Jones polishes them up with real conviction—and a voice rather a bit on the vinegary side from the “fine wine” Asylum advertised only four years ago. With Jones surrounded by the lush, ’70s-style production of a back-from-retirement Billy Sherrill and driving home the message that it’s never too late to mend your ways, the project seems to have been calculated to highlight the toll exacted on his voice by the past 30 years. Once considered the greatest vocalist country music had ever seen, the Possum isn’t afraid to be caught moving a little slower these days. The fact that he’s moving at all is what the record’s about.

All of these voices are marked by the years, but there is one singer who has been positively scarred by time, for whom age is now the central fact of his artistry: By unflinchingly continuing to record past the point when prudence and vanity would demand retiring, 76-year-old Charlie Louvin has rendered some of the most moving, even harrowing performances in the history of the genre that, more than any other—even the blues—is defined by the subject of loss.

Call it heedlessness, call it guts—I’d hoped to witness it in the flesh when the singer came to the 9:30 Club a couple of weeks ago as part of Cake’s Unlimited Sunshine Tour. The trouble would have been obvious to any critic who couldn’t quiet the young ladies drawn by the ditz magnet that is his illuminated pen: The crowd did not belong to Louvin. By the end of his brief set, he was playing not to the audience, hellbent on reliving its most awesome kegger ever, but to the Hackensaw Boys, with whom he shared the stage. A real Nashville trouper, as well as a complete fish out of water, he kept the tone light and almost obliviously grateful.

You have to unearth the records Louvin made a few years back for Watermelon and last year for Country Discovery to observe the aesthetic of the ruined voice in full flower. Fortunately, 2002’s The Sound of Days to Come was available for the price of two beers at the back of the hall. On the disc, Louvin is afflicted by nearly every deficiency that can haunt an aging singer: He’s quavery, choked, sibilant, unsure—and he’s counting on you to know that he wasn’t always this way. He goes for the jugular straightaway, with a reminiscence of the man with whom, from the late ’40s to the early ’60s, he formed one of a mere handful of truly legendary close-harmony duos.

Devastating from the first line, “Ira” is directed, with reverence and unassuageable longing, to “the King of Sand Mountain,” who by virtue of an early death remains forever young in the memory of the old man who was his little brother. Charlie’s also counting on you to know that Ira’s weakness for the bottle broke up the band two years before a car accident made the decision irreversible, that Charlie was forced—despite the fact that “there’ll never be another, ’cause you can’t beat family”—to admit that the singer he admired above all others wasn’t a person he could stand to be around.

However sincere the sentiments that inspire them, tributes are notoriously difficult to guide through the rocks. But Louvin completely transcends his band’s mawkish backing, delivering the song with a voice that has well earned its sorrow. Every word he sings is informed by the knowledge that most problems never get solved—they just die along with the people they troubled.

Country music simply gets no truer than it does in the hands of its best broken singer. Every time I hear Louvin’s record, it calls to mind a story I once read about a spiteful British interviewer trying to milk Rosanne Cash for an angry quote. “Your father can’t sing,” he told her. “I know,” she replied. “But it’s the way he can’t sing.” CP