From the Archives: The Voice of Everyman in Black
Johnny Cash, the black-clad baritone whose rural roots and songs of the downtrodden made him a revered, Lincolnesque figure in the history of American popular music, died Friday. He was 71.
The singer of such hits as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ring of Fire” died at Baptist Hospital in Nashville after complications related to diabetes caused respiratory failure, according to his manager, Lou Robin. It was four months after the singer’s longtime wife and music partner, June Carter Cash, died at age 73 following heart surgery.
With a signature stage greeting of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” spare music and a voice like the locomotives he often sang about, the singer’s persona outsized his own music, and no country star stretched further beyond Nashville than Cash. As television star — usually playing himself or cowboys — or as author or activist, the singer put together a career that spanned five decades in the spotlight.
“Johnny Cash was an international ambassador for country music and a musical trailblazer throughout his life, possessing one of the most recognizable names, faces and voices the world has ever known,” Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Assn., said Friday. He added: “It is incomprehensible to imagine what country music would have been like without Johnny Cash and his music.”
In all, Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs and won 11 Grammys. Cash was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, and was also the first person inducted into both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll halls of fame, in 1980 and 1992, respectively.
In his songs about laborers, gunfights, junkies and hard-luck heroes, as well as in his considerable volumes of spiritual music, Cash used his unvarnished vocals to further the musical mission of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie — to sing the song of the everyman. He sang about society’s underdogs (“Man in Black”), Native Americans (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”) and the dehumanization of inmates (“San Quentin”).
“He is a true American hero, beloved the world over as much for his kindness and compassion and championing of the underdog as for the power of his art,” singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, who wrote the Cash hit “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” said Friday. “He’s been my inspiration ... his fierce independence and free spirit, balanced with his love of family, children and his fellow man, will stand as a shining example of the best of what it means to be human. And he was damned funny, even in the darkest times.”
The Irish band U2 collaborated with Cash on the 1993 song “Wanderer,” and on Friday lead singer Bono said Cash’s stature went beyond art: “He was more than wise. In a garden full of weeds — the oak tree.”
Cash had endured a battery of health problems in recent years and, despite two Grammy-winning discs over the last eight years, the singer told The Times last year that he was weak. His eyes were frosted by glaucoma, his gait was unsteady and asthma kept him gasping at times. But he was unbowed and still in love with music.
“Music is part of my life every day,” he said on that October day. “It’s hanging around every morning; sometimes it is with me at night. June says I was singing a song all last night in my sleep. She had to shake me.”
On Feb. 26, 1932, J.R. Cash — not yet Johnny — was born in Kingsland, Ark., to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash. The New Deal arrived, and with its hopeful underwriting, the couple took 3-year-old J.R. and the rest of the brood to Dyess in the flat, black delta of the state’s northeast corner, where young J.R. and his siblings worked the cotton fields.
“The last thing I remember before going to sleep,” Cash recalled in the liner notes of a 1994 album, “was my mother beating time on the old Sears-Roebuck guitar, singing ‘What Would You Give Me for Your Soul?’ ”
In the same album notes, for the disc “American Recordings,” Cash wrote that when the family gathered on the porch at night he could hear “panthers scream in the woods,” but that his mother’s voice and guitar mesmerized him like “the harp of King David that we read about in the Bible.”
Carl Perkins would later write “Daddy Sang Bass” about the family scenes Cash described from his childhood, but the days were grim. At age 5, his family was evacuated when the Mississippi River overran its banks (an episode he recounted in the 1959 song “Five Foot High and Rising”), and at age 12 his brother Jack, two years his elder, died in a grisly electric-saw accident.
Cash finished high school in 1950 and worked briefly in an automobile factory and a margarine plant, but in short order he enlisted in the Air Force, was trained as a radio operator and stationed in Germany.
The service stint was a bleak, lonely time for Cash, who was now known as “John” Cash, a change he explained later was due to military forms that did not allow initials to be substituted for first names. Cash turned his focus to his music, learning to play guitar, filling notepads with lyrics and forming his first band, which had a very non-Nashville name, “Landsberg Barbarians.”
It was on base that he also saw a film one night that would inspire one of his signature hits: “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.”
In 1955, they auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, the storied music hub where Elvis Presley was already on his way to stardom. Cash presented himself as a gospel singer and was promptly turned away — Phillips insisted he come back with something more commercial. Cash returned with “Hey Porter,” propelled by a “boom chicka boom” sound that Perkins and Grant would make a signature.
To the dismay of Cash, Phillips put the name “Johnny” on the single (it sounded too immature, Cash believed), but regardless the youngster had his first, fleeting hit in November 1955 with the song on the flip side, “Cry Cry Cry.” Three months later, he had a song that established a trademark for his entire career: “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The lyrics presented a cautionary confession of an inmate: “When I was just a baby, my Mama told me, ‘Son/Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns'/But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die/When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.”
That summer, Cash had another hit with “I Walk the Line,” a song of devotion, but his days at Sun were numbered. In late 1958, after 14 Top 10 country hits, Cash went to Columbia Records, where he surprised all of Nashville by ignoring commercial considerations and creating a series of concept albums, among them “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” about the travails of the working class, and “Bitter Tears,” a look at the crushing treatment of Native Americans.
This concept album phase also found Cash’s personal life in mounting disarray. Cash had become hooked on amphetamines and became known for wrecking motel rooms, waving guns and running afoul of the law. The man who had imagined prison life in song found himself spending a handful of nights in jail himself. In 1966, Cash divorced Liberto.
In the midst of the grim years, Cash scored a 1963 hit with “Ring of Fire,” which hit No. 1 on the country charts and No. 17 on the pop charts. The song was written by Merle Kilgore and June Carter. Carter was country music royalty as the daughter of Maybelle Carter of the genre-shaping Carter Family.
Carter and Cash had become good friends by that point and the song’s theme — a love that consumes and endangers — would be a fitting theme to the romance that would eventually bond the two for life. Carter and Cash married in March 1968. Cash often credited her with his salvation, not just by helping him beat his addictions but also by guiding him to a more religious lifestyle.
The pair had hits together as well, among them “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in 1964, “Jackson” in 1967 and the Grammy-winning version of the Tim Hardin song “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1970.
Cash once wrote of his wife: “What June did for me was post signs along the way, lift me when I was weak, encourage me when I was discouraged, and love me when I was alone and felt unlovable. She is the greatest woman I have ever known. Nobody else, except my mother, comes close.”
With his own life in order, Cash enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1960s that would find one of its shining moments in the bleak environs of a California prison.
Columbia Records had finally relented and agreed to record one of the singer’s frequent performances for convicts, and the result was “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” one of the most acclaimed concert albums in pop music history.
A follow-up performance, at San Quentin, was filmed for a documentary and yielded a rollicking hit in “A Boy Named Sue,” a quirky tale of a man looking to find his long-gone father so he can find out the reason for his effeminate name. The song, written by Shel Silverstein, memorably ends in a brawl in “the mud and the blood and the beer,” and it charmed fans enough to become a No. 1 country hit and peak at No. 2 on pop charts.
The prison recordings are dramatic — not only because of the music but also for moments such as prisoners being summoned by inmate number over a public address system — and they helped create a surge in interest in Cash that led to his own television series.
It speaks to Cash’s artistic sensibility that instead of mirroring successful shows such as “Hee Haw” that focused on country’s mainstream stars, he used his ABC series to champion music he believed in from all genres. Ray Charles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Merle Haggard were among the guests on the show, which ran from 1969 to 1971. The first episode featured Bob Dylan, and Cash also appeared the same year on Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album.
In 1971, Cash appeared in the film “A Gunfight” with a cast that included Kirk Douglas, Karen Black and Keith Carradine. That began in earnest a side career as actor that included numerous appearances in television movies (including “Stagecoach,” with old pal Willie Nelson) and as a guest on notable series (“Columbo” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” among them).
The acting roles rarely drifted far from the gothic aura Cash had shaped for himself, an aura that is perhaps best summed up by the title of a CD collection released in 2000 that broke down Cash’s considerable hits into three discs and three categories: “Love,” “God” and “Murder.”
The folk image of Cash — part preacher and part honorable ex-con, part liberal champion and part Old West cowboy — is a fascinating collage of reality with his music and myth. Cash, amused himself, often recounted that young people approached him routinely through the years to say that their fathers had done prison time with the singer.
In 1993, Cash was signed to American Records by Rick Rubin, the music producer known for working with the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and at first blush perhaps an unlikely candidate to revive Cash as a meaningful solo artist. Under Rubin’s hand, though, Cash began a series of acclaimed releases called the “American Recordings.”
The “American Recordings” series reached its zenith in the most recent installment, “Part IV: The Man Comes Around.”
In May, the Recording Industry Assn. of America certified the disc as a gold record, the coveted title bestowed on albums that top 500,000 copies sold. It was Cash’s 13th gold record and his first since “The World of Johnny Cash” in 1971. Most observers agree that the album’s success was a direct result of Cash’s cover version of the haunting Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” which, in the aging singer’s wavering baritone, became a song of mortality and regret.
The impact of the song and the sales of the album were magnified by a music video directed by Mark Romanek. The video intermixes images of Cash singing with the dilapidated corridors of his memorabilia museum as his wife looks on and also with vintage footage of him on stage and in screen roles.
The nomination last month of “Hurt” for MTV music video of the year may not rival the stature of his Kennedy Center Honors or his Grammy lifetime achievement award, but it certainly spoke more to his stature as a working 21st century artist.
The video was nominated for MTV video of the year despite little airplay on that channel, and while Cash was ailing too much to attend the New York event, he was celebrated often from the stage by many young pop and rock stars. Again showing his genre-bending prowess, the latest Cash work also earned four nominations at the Country Music Awards, to be staged in November. To many eyes, “Hurt” was the artist staring into twilight.
“I cried the first time I saw it,” Rubin said. “I spoke to Bono and he compared what Johnny is doing now to what Elvis Presley did in the 1950s. Then, Elvis represented a new youth culture and it shocked and terrified everyone because culture wasn’t about youth before him. Now we live in a youth culture and Johnny Cash is showing the experience of a much older generation. It’s just as radical.”
The rhythms of country music continued on into the next generation as well. Rosanne Cash, daughter of Cash and his first wife, became an acclaimed country voice in her own right. His stepdaughter, Carlene Carter, also scored Top 10 country hits. John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June, is also a musician and record producer. His sons-in-law have included music names as well — Nick Lowe and Rodney Crowell both married into the family for a time.
Crowell on Friday said it was Cash’s family role that perhaps defined him best.
“As a musical hero to millions, a trailblazing artist, humanitarian, spiritual leader, social commentator and most importantly, patriarch to one of the most varied and colorful extended families imaginable, Johnny Cash will, like Will Rogers, stand forever as a symbol of intelligence, creativity, compassion and common sense,” Crowell said. “I’m thinking Mt. Rushmore.”
Plans for a public memorial are pending. Flowers may be sent to the Hendersonville Funeral Home, 353 Johnny Cash Parkway, Henderson, Tenn. 37075, and donations sent to SOS Children Villages USA, 1317 F St. NW, No. 550, Washington, D.C. 20004.
Here are 25 of Johnny Cash’s landmark recordings, in chronological order:
“Hey Porter” (1955)
“Cry Cry Cry” (1955)
“Folsom Prison Blues” (1956)
“I Walk the Line” (1956)
“I Still Miss Someone” (1956)
“Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (1958)
“Big River” (1958)
“Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958)
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (1959)
“Luther Played the Boogie” (1959)
“Tennessee Flat-Top Box” (1961)
“Ring of Fire” (1963)
“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (1964)
“Jackson” (with June Carter) (1967)
“Daddy Sang Bass” (1968)
“A Boy Named Sue” (1969)
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970)
“If I Were a Carpenter” (with June Carter Cash) (1970)
“Man in Black” (1971)
“Ragged Old Flag” (1974)
“Highwayman” (with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson) (1985)
“The Beast in Me” (1994)
“Rusty Cage” (1997)
“Solitary Man” (2000)
“Give My Love to Rose” (2002)
Los Angeles Times
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.