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Cash, J. R. (“Johnny”)

Cash, J. R. (“Johnny”)

(b. 26 February 1932 near Kingsland, Arkansas; d. 12 September 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee), Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter who was country music’s best-known ambassador and a critical link between the genre’s original and modern stylings.

Born in south central Arkansas to a sharecropping family, Cash knew rural hardship from the beginning of his life. By 1934 the plummeting crop prices of the Great Depression had virtually killed prospects for cotton sharecroppers in the South, as the U.S. government encouraged widespread decommissioning of cotton-producing land. Left with few options, Cash’s parents, Ray Cash and Carrie (Rivers) Cash, applied for and were accepted into a federal program that relocated able farmers to Dyess Colony, a cotton-farming cooperative in northwestern Arkansas. In March 1934 Cash and his four siblings (there would eventually be a total of seven children) moved with their parents onto a twenty-acre plot of land with a house and outbuildings. His family was buoyed by the opportunity, and Cash remained in Dyess until he graduated from high school.

During his childhood in Dyess, Cash demonstrated his artistic interests and musical skills. He was inspired by songs he heard in the Baptist church and on the radio as well as by a variety of role models, including his mother, who played guitar and piano, and an older brother named Roy, who played and sang in a country and western band. Cash wrote verse that he often shared with his young friends, and he sang at school assemblies and while working in the fields.

Upon graduation from Dyess High School in 1950, Cash traveled with two fellow Dyess colonists to Michigan, where he worked for a brief time in a General Motors plant. However, he found northern urban life unsettling and tired quickly of stamping sheets of metal into automobile hoods. He returned to Arkansas after approximately three weeks and immediately joined the U.S. Air Force.

The armed forces proved to be Cash’s university. After displaying an aptitude for radio intercept operations—the task of locating and monitoring enemy communications—he undertook several months of specialized training in Biloxi, Mississippi, before traveling to his permanent assignment at Landsberg Air Force Base in West Germany. Arriving during the heart of the cold war, Cash and his comrades were stationed at radio receivers for eight-hour shifts while they strained to hear transmissions of military code from Russia and its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. When he was not on duty, Cash socialized with a group of men who helped further form his artistic talents and aspirations. The men—many of them from the South and Midwest—played guitar and sang the kind of music that coursed through Cash’s youth: gospel and country. Cash sang along and purchased his first guitar. He also continued with the verse writing that he had plied in his childhood, composing a number of songs that he would later record.

While awaiting passage to Europe at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Cash had met Vivian Liberto, with whom he struck up a romance and, upon his relocation to Germany, an intense letter-writing exchange. After his honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force in 1954, he and Liberto married on 7 August 1954 and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. The couple would have four daughters together: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. (Rosanne would follow in her father’s footsteps, establishing a successful singing career in the early 1980s.)

Shortly after Cash arrived in Memphis and found work as an appliance salesman, his brother Roy introduced him to two auto mechanics who also played guitar: Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. They joined Cash for evening jam sessions in their homes, working up arrangements on gospel and country favorites as well as on some of the songs Cash had written while in the military. Within a year of arriving in Memphis, Cash, Perkins (who took up the electric guitar), and Grant (who learned to play the bass) were recording for Sun Records, the tiny label with a big sound that also launched the careers of the musicians Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. (Sun’s proprietor, Sam Phillips, dubbed Cash “Johnny” because he thought it would sit better with the teenage record market.) Success for Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two was not long in coming: when Phillips released the group’s first record, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in the summer of 1955, it lingered on the local sales charts and pierced the national sales charts as well. Captivating listeners with Cash’s deep and emotional vocals and the band’s throbbing rhythm, which became known as the “boom-chicka-boom,” Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two assembled a body of work studded with classics such as “Folsom Prison Blues” (1956), “I Walk the Line” (1956), “Get Rhythm” (1956), “Home of the Blues” (1957), “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (1958), “Big River” (1958), and others.

A national star by 1956, Cash parlayed his hits into appearances on major radio barn dance programs such as the Grand Ole Opry (on WSM in Nashville) and the Louisiana Hayride (on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana) and guest spots on network television shows such as The Jackie Gleason Show (1957), The Ed Sullivan Show (1959), and The Dick Clark Show (1958, 1960). His star ascended higher still in 1958, when he departed Sun Records and signed with Columbia Records, one of the nation’s biggest recording companies at the time. Following in Elvis Presley’s path, Cash also moved his base of operations from Memphis to Hollywood, hoping to make the jump from records, radio, and television to the movies. Although success in the film industry eluded him, he continued to mine his talent for dramatic delivery to produce major country music hits such as “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (1959), “I Got Stripes” (1959), and “Ring of Fire” (1963). His songwriting, too, continued to be a source of commercial success as well as an important contribution to the American folk music canon. Compositions such as “Pickin’ Time” (1958) and “Five Feet High and Rising” (1959)—drawn from Cash’s childhood observations—documented the rural experience and inspired figures in the folk revival movement who valued authentic voices from the American scene.

During the 1960s Cash had a time of personal setbacks and creative experimentation. He struggled with a devastating addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates and pursued a stormy romance with the country music personality June Carter, daughter of Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family musical group. As a result of Cash’s drug use, he often missed shows and engaged in all manner of reckless behavior: he set fire to a national forest in California, wrecked numerous automobiles, and destroyed countless hotel rooms. The relationship with Carter spelled the end of Cash’s marriage to Vivian Liberto. They divorced in early 1968. Cash and Carter wed on 1 March 1968; they would have one son, the musician John Carter Cash.

On the creative side, Cash’s work seemed to belie the state of his personal life. He courted the musicians Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Peter La Farge, and other artists from the folk music scene, drawing inspiration from their focus on the American drama and encouragement from their admiration of him. He also recorded what many contend is the most important work of his career, the albums Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963), Bitter Tears (1964), and Ballads of the True West (1965), which dealt with the working man, the Native American, and the frontier experience, respectively. By 1967, however, the drugs had virtually destroyed his health: he appeared emaciated and struggled to maintain the quality of his writing and recording.

It took the affirmation of the multimillion-selling Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968), which earned two Grammy Awards for Cash, to rejuvenate his career and his personal life. A live performance recorded at California’s Folsom State Prison, the album opened a host of new opportunities to Cash, including concerts at major arenas such as Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Forum in Los Angeles and a weekly television show, the Johnny Cash Show (1969–1971), on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network.

Another popular prison album, Johnny Cash at San Quentin—this one recorded at California’s San Quentin State Prison in 1969—along with the wide variety of music he featured on his television program reaffirmed his role as an American storyteller and a spokesman for the common man. His prison albums also fueled his image as an unrepentant bad boy, an image born in his drug-induced behavior and the mistaken belief that Cash had served time at Folsom and San Quentin.

The glory of Cash’s late 1960s and early 1970s solidified his stature as the top personality in country music and gave him capital to explore other musical interests, including a film based on the life of Christ titled The Gospel Road (1973) and patriotic projects such as the album America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972) and the hit single “Ragged Old Flag” (1974). However, young audiences who had flocked to the Folsom and San Quentin albums did not appreciate his gospel and patriotic themes, forcing him to fall back on his core country audience. As the 1970s progressed, his record sales diminished, although he remained a marquee name in television and concerts.

Although Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, the rest of that decade found his career in a free fall. Frequent illnesses and his resurging drug dependence stymied his writing abilities and fogged his recordings. He faced dwindling crowds on concert tours, and in 1986 Columbia Records shocked the country music industry by refusing to re-sign him to a recording contract. A subsequent deal with Mercury Records failed to change Cash’s misfortunes.

But the singer had one more storied chapter left in his career. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 1993 he signed with Rick Rubin, a young producer who had worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, and other acts popular with young audiences in the rap and heavy metal markets. Relying on a formula that would redeem Cash’s recording career, Rubin paired the aging singer with material written by young composers, banished the tried-and-true boom-chicka-boom sound, and used the singer’s dark image to cast him as something of a godfather to the gangsta rap and metal stylings. Cash’s first album with Rubin was American Recordings (1994), which featured only Cash and his guitar playing. It was Cash’s highest-charting album in more than twenty years. Cash went on to record three more albums with Rubin during his lifetime, which brought him to the attention of young audiences and sealed his status as a major figure in popular music.

The final two albums recorded with Rubin came as Cash suffered with a disease of his nervous system. He retired from touring in 1997 and was in and out of hospitals for the next six years. He remained active only in the studio, where family and associates say he found a reason to live. His wife, June, died on 15 May 2003 after complications from heart surgery. Cash followed her on 12 September 2003. His death was attributed to the effects of diabetes. He is buried next to June Carter in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee, the town where the couple spent all of their married life.

When Cash died the world remembered a singer who embodied the American experience by singing and writing about its rural backbone and speaking for its common man. In country music, he was heir to the musicians Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, men who during their lifetimes and after were the faces of the genre. Indeed, Cash was the face of country music for most of his career and, in the minds of many, remains so. His writing—at its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s—enriched the nation’s folk music catalog, and his exploration of the lives of prisoners, Native Americans, laborers, farmers, and others on the outskirts of society uniquely demonstrates the power of music to comment on injustice and the human condition. Cash had twelve Grammy Awards and thirteen gold records to his name.

Cash is probably the most documented country music artist in history. He wrote two autobiographies, Man in Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997). Important biographies include Winners Got Scars Too: The Life and Legends of Johnny Cash by Christopher S. Wren (1971) and Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon by Stephen Miller (2003). Michael Streissguth has authored or edited a trilogy of books on the singer: Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader (2002), ed. Streissguth; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece (2004); and Johnny Cash: The Biography (2006). Obituaries are in the New York Times (13 Sept. 2003) and the Village Voice (17 Sept.–23 Sept. 2003).

Michael Streissguth

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