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Country music has a long history of interesting people popping up in places you really wouldn’t expect.
Legendary hip-hop producer Rick Rubin working with an aging Johnny Cash is one, and Guy Fieri teaming up with Alan Jackson to invite Jon Pardi to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry is another, but those are far from the only examples and this one may just be my favorite of them all.
Shel Silverstein is one of the best known children’s authors in history, having sold more than 20 million copies of his various works which include A Light In The Attic, The Giving Tree, and most famously his collection of poems titled Where The Sidewalk Ends, which I read at least 100 times growing up.
But he wasn’t just someone who wrote things kids loved. In fact, he was far from it.
Born in Chicago on this day, September 25th, 1930, Silverstein always loved drawing but was never at home in school. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Illinois but was expelled for bad grades.
He then went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, but was drafted while attending and went on to serve in Japan and Korea. The US was not engaged in active war at the time and he was assigned to write for the Army publication called Pacific Stars and Stripes, which is where he got his first real taste of publishing his cartoons.
During this job, he often came into conflict with the military censors as his words and depictions tended to be counter to the narrative the military wanted to push. Despite this pushback, his works became favorites among the troops and a compilation of these works became his first major publication.
After his time in the Army ended, he took a job selling hot dogs at baseball stadiums in Chicago while continuing to draw cartoons. His works began to get published in Sports Illustrated, which lead to him being picked up by Playboy.
Yes, the famed children’s author got his big break from the adult magazine ran by the notorious Hugh Hefner.
Cartoons were far from the only skill in Silverstein’s repertoire though and he wrote over 100 one-act plays, a number of full theater acts, and some screenplays for TV and film, but his best foray away from cartoons was songwriting.
While Shel released a number of albums on his own, he’s best known in this space as a songwriter for some of the biggest acts in country music history.
He wrote Tom Glaser’s “Put Another Log On The Fire”, Loretta Lynn’s “One’s On The Way”, Bobby Bare’s “Tequila Sheila”, and Waylon Jennings’ “The Taker.”
But he will forever be tied to one outlaw country artist with a name that has transcended music and became something of a cultural symbol of America.
Johnny Cash recorded a number of Shel Silverstein cuts over the years, including my favorite country comedy tune “One Piece At A Time,” but undoubtedly it was “A Boy Named Sue” that rocketed both the Man In Black and Shel Silverstein to legendary status.
Recorded live at Johnny’s iconic San Quentin concert on February 24th, 1969, “A Boy Named Sue” became one of the biggest hits of Cash’s career, spending three weeks at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, trailing only the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” It was the only Top 10 of his career on the all-genre chart and was certified Gold by RIAA that same year.
Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein will forever be tied together thanks to this smash hit and in some ways it makes sense that their careers would be intertwined.
Both served in the military despite having critiques of American culture. Both have a dark side to their personal lives despite broad public appeal and near universal love. Both can speak truths that seem basic on the surface but carry deep weight when explored.
However you choose to remember these men, it’s impossible to not recognize the impact they each had on the other’s lives, which is yet another good lesson for us all to remember, that without those around us, we may not have become what we ourselves are.