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Cash, Johnny (1932—)

Cash, Johnny (1932—)

Significantly, country music star Johnny Cash's career coincided with the birth of rock 'n' roll. Cash's music reflected the rebellious outlaw spirit of early rock, despite the fact that it did not sound much like the new genre or, for that matter, even like traditional country music. Something that perhaps best sums up his image is a famous picture of Cash, with a guitar slung around his neck and an indignant look on his face giving the middle finger to the camera. As the self-dubbed "Man in Black," Johnny Cash has evolved from a Nashville outsider into an American icon who did not have to trade his mass popularity for a more mainstream, non-country sound. Despite a number of setbacks, the most prominent of which was a debilitating addiction to pills and numerous visits to jail, Cash has maintained his popularity since releasing his first single in 1955.

Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas on February 26, 1932. He grew up in the small Arkansas town of Dyess, a bible-belt town that published Sunday school attendance figures in the weekly newspaper. Cash hated working on the family farm, preferring instead to escape into his own world listening to the Grand 'Ol Opry or its smaller cousin, The Louisiana Hayride. By the age of 12 he was writing his own songs and he also experienced what many claim to be his first setback, perhaps fueling much of his reckless behavior—his brother Jack was killed in a farming accident. In 1950, Cash enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War. It was during this time that he bought his first guitar, taught himself how to play, and started writing prolifically—one of the songs written during this period was the Johnny Cash standard, "Folsom Prison Blues." After his time in the Air Force he married Vivian Leberto, moved to Memphis in 1954, and began playing in a trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant.

Johnny Cash's first singles were released on Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records, the Memphis-based 1950s independent label that also launched the careers of Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. It was this maverick environment that fostered Cash's original sound, which was characterized by his primitive rhythm guitar playing and the simple guitar picking of Cash's early lead guitarist, Luther Perkins. His lyrics overwhelmingly dealt with the darker side of life and were delivered by Cash's trademark deep baritone voice that sounded like the aural equivalent of the parched, devastated ground of the depression-era mid-west dust bowl. "Folsom Prison Blues" was sung from the perspective of an unrepentant killer and contained the infamous line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Another prison song, "Give My Love to Rose," was a heartbreaking love letter to a wife that was left behind when the song's character was sent to jail. Other early songs like "Rock Island Line," "Hey Porter," "Get Rhythm," and "Luther Played the Boogie" could certainly be characterized as raucous and upbeat, but Cash also had a tendency to write or cover weepers like Jack Clement's "I Guess Things Happen That Way," the tragic classic country ballad "Long Black Veil," or his own "I Still Miss Someone."

It was not long before Cash cultivated an outsider, outlaw image that was exacerbated by his relatively frequent visits to jail—if only for a day or two—for fighting, drinking, or possessing illegal amphetamines. The frequent concerts he played for prisoners inside jails created an empathy between Cash and those at the margins of society. The fact that he never shed his rural, working-class roots also created a connection with everyday folks. His simple, dark songs influenced a generation of country singer-songwriters that emerged in the early 1960s. They include Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. In fact, Haggard became inspired to continue playing music after Cash gave a prison concert where Haggard was serving a two year sentence for armed robbery.

Cash is a heap of contradictions: a devout Christian who is given to serious bouts with drugs and alcohol; a family man who, well into his sixties, spends the majority of the year on the road; and a loving, kindhearted man who has been known to engage in violent and mean-spirited behavior. His life has combined the tragic with the comic as illustrated by a bizarre incident in 1983. During one of his violent spells, he swung a large piece of wood at his eight-foot-tall pet ostrich, which promptly kicked Cash in the chest, breaking three ribs. To ease the pain he had to take painkillers. Cash had already spent time at the Betty Ford clinic to end addiction to painkillers.

Cash's career has gone through ups and downs. After an initial burst of popularity during the Sun years, which fueled his rise to country music superstardom on Columbia Records, his sales began to decline in the mid-1960s, due partially to the debilitating effects of drugs. During this period, Cash experienced a creative slump he has not quite recovered from. For the most part he stopped writing his own songs and instead began to cover the songs of others. After his Sun period and the early Columbia years, original compositions became more and more infrequent as he focused more on being a performer and an interpreter rather than an originator. Although the stellar music became increasingly infrequent, he still created great music in songs like "Ring of Fire," "Jackson," and "Highway Patrolman." Despite countless albums of filler and trivial theme albums—"Americana," "Train," "Gunfighter," "Indian," and "True West"—there are still enough nuggets to justify his continued recording career. This is true even in consideration of his lackluster mid-1980s to the early 1990s Mercury Records years. In 1994, however, Cash's career was reignited again with the release of his critically praised all-acoustic American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin. Rubin's experience with Tom Petty, RUN-DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, and The Cult certainly prepared him for a hit with Cash.

Meaning many things to many people, Cash has been able to maintain a curiously eclectic audience throughout his career. For instance, Johnny Cash was a hero to the southern white working class—what some might call "rednecks"—and college educated northerners alike. He has cultivated an audience of criminals and fundamentalist Christians—working closely, at times, with conservatives like Billy Graham—and has campaigned for the civil rights of Native Americans. During the late 1960s, he was embraced by the counterculture and played with Bob Dylan on his Nashville Skyline album, while at the same time performing for Richard Nixon at the White House—Nixon was not the only president who admired him … Cash even received fan mail from then president Jimmy Carter. He has also been celebrated by the middle-American mainstream as a great entertainer, and had a popular network television variety show during the late 1960s and early 1970s called The Johnny Cash Show.

During the 1990s, Cash has played both "oldies" concerts for baby boomers and down home family revue-type acts, cracking Southern flavored jokes between songs. During this time, Cash was dismissed as a relic of a long-forgotten age by Nashville insiders who profited from the likes of country music superstars Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. After the release in 1994 of his American Recordings album, however, he has been celebrated by a young hip audience as an alternative rock icon and an original punk rocker.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. New York, Vintage, 1997

Dolan, Sean. Johnny Cash. New York, Chelsea House, 1995.

Hartley, Allan. Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. New York, Revell, 1982.

Loewen, Nancy. Johnny Cash. New York, Rourke Entertainment, 1989.

Wren, Christopher S. Winner Got Scars Too: The Life and Legends of Johnny Cash. New York, Ballantine, 1974.

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