But First, You’ve Got To Get Hit By A Truck
If you were hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it out?
Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt.
Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin’ in yourself.
— Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, to Johnny Cash
According the movie Walk The Line, that’s what Sam Phillips said to Johnny Cash after Cash came in to sing a gospel song, just like every other person trying to get a record deal in those days.
Another story says that he told Cash to,
“Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”
Again, whether this is what actually happened or not, I’m not sure. But the truth behind it is absolutely true.
Cash came back with Cry, Cry, Cry, and Hey, Porter. Two songs that Cash actually could relate to. Songs that he lived. That’s what Phillips wanted to hear in the first place and that’s what eventually got Johnny Cash a record deal.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But Johnny Cash had to find his voice first. So he went back home and thought about what Sam Phillips had told him. He thought about what he would tell God and everybody about this life he had on earth and what he would want everyone to know. What would sum up his life? What was something he felt? What was something that was different?
Phillips wanted a song that Cash himself felt and was specific to him and his life. He wanted something that “truly saves people” and showed that he believed in himself. He wanted something real.
And that’s exactly what you have to do.
If you want to find your true voice in your writing, your art, your music, your life, you absolutely have to tell something that you can relate to. You have to tell something that only you can speak to from your own unique experience in this world. Don’t let it come from someone else. Don’t let others tell it for you. Tell that raw, honest truth that only you have.
Every single experience you have in life is completely unique to you.
I know, people say that no one is a special snowflake, they just think they are. But here’s the truth. Every single person is. No one was born exactly in the same place, same time, into the same family, in the same birth order, had the same friends, at the same school in the same town, during the same years, with the same genetics, same perceptions, and had the same experience as you. Some people (family and friends) have a lot of the same things, but no one has the exact same life that you’ve had.
Therefore, no one will be 100% just like you and have your life.
You have to speak from that life that is 100% yours.
We need your voice in this world. If there were no reason for you to be here, then you wouldn’t be. If you’re here, then we need you. But we need the real you. The 100% real you.
Just this once, believe in yourself and share your 100% real life with the rest of us. It sounds selfish to promote yourself or talk about yourself, but you need to get it out there. If your life can affect even one other person, wouldn’t that be worth it?
One Song That Would Sum You Up
Just like Sam Phillips asked Cash, what’s that one song that would sum you up? What’s the last thing you would tell people right before you die?
For some, this is difficult to think about.
That’s why you should do it.
Imagine you’re on your deathbed at the age of 100. Your spouse, children, grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren, and any friends you have left are all around you to share the last few minutes of your life together. Everyone is telling stories and asking you to tell some. Then, someone asks, “What’s the one thing you want us to know about life?”
What do you say?
What is the one, last thing that you want to leave them with? What’s that thing that you want them to know about this thing called life? What should they do? How should they act? What should they spend their time doing? Who should they spend their life with? Where should they go in life? Why does all of this matter?
No one can answer this except for you.
And your answer will impact all those people around at that time. That’s the one thing that you will leave them with. That’s the last memory of you that they will have.
What would you say?
How Will You Save People?
That’s what Phillips wants from Cash — a song that truly saves people. Cash was wanting to sing gospel which was popular at the time. Many folks believe that a great gospel song will speak to someone so deeply that it will save them.
Phillips was saying that any song could save people as long as it’s true and real and meaningful to them.
He didn’t want Cash to sing a song that he thought people wanted. He wanted him to sing a song that Johnny Cash himself wanted. If he wanted to hear a song, what would that sound like?
The irony is that the thing that we want so much in the world is the same thing that the world needs. By doing something that saves ourselves, we end up saving the world. Sure, maybe you won’t be the next Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but you can still affect others. Your art, your work, whatever your thing is, is something that the world needs. And oddly enough, you’re the exact person who can bring it into the world.
We need you to do that.
We need you to bring that vision into the world.
We need you to write it.
We need you to create it.
We need you to build it.
We need you design it.
We need you to speak it.
We need you to share it.
Do something that’s different, do some that’s real, do something that you feel.
And to paraphrase Sam Phillips, I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of thing people want. It has to do with believing in yourself.
If you can do that, you’ve found your voice.
How To Find Your Voice Like Johnny Cash was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.