Johnny Cash was not only a country superstar, he was one of the 20th century’s most influential artists and a music icon whose voice, presence and showmanship is triumphant even in his wake. Cash blurred the lines between country, folk, gospel and rock n’ roll expertly. His sparse yet visceral guitar playing only served to enhance his epic storytelling. Johnny’s rich, earthy baritone is unique and immediately identifiable. He, as well as his voice, is unforgettable and beloved.
Born J.R. Cash in Arkansas, USA, in 1932, Johnny was writing his own songs by the age of 12. He graduated from high school in 1950, moving to Detroit to briefly work in a car factory before enlisting in the US Air Force in the early 50s. While in the Air Force, Johnny bought his first guitar and taught himself to play. Upon leaving the Air Force in 1954, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he played in the Tennessee Three – consisting of guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant.
Cash sought to land an audition with Sun Records and its infamous founder, Sam Phillips. The deal transpired in 1955 and it was Johnny’s song ‘Hey, Porter’ that encouraged Philips to sign him. Sun Records released ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’ / ‘Hey, Porter’ as his debut record on the label. Philips transformed Cash from “J. R.” to “Johnny” upon the release.
His second single, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ reached the country top five in early 1956 and its follow-up ‘I Walk the Line’ was number one for six weeks and crossed over into the pop top 20. Needless to say, both songs to this day remain relevant and as potent as ever. Cash played the Opry for the first time in 1957 and was subsequently dubbed the “Man In Black” due to his all-black attire as opposed to other country stars who dressed in colourful sequins and loud costumes; more Cash hits followed.
In 1958, he attempted to record a gospel album, but Philips refused to allow it insisting that Cash remain in the country realm. Phillips was also unwilling to increase Cash’s record royalties who was, by now, releasing hit singles with alacrity. Cash decided to switch labels and signed with Columbia, and the hits kept coming with ‘All Over Again’ and ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’. By this time, his music was crossing over to the pop charts with great regularity. In 1960, he finally made his gospel album Hymns by Johnny Cash. It was at this point Cash began to suffer from career burnout, so he started relying on amphetamines to help him get through a gruelling schedule of nearly 300 shows a year. By 1961, his drug use impacted his professional life.
It was celebrated country singer June Carter who would reinvigorate his career. She co-wrote ‘Ring Of Fire’, a huge hit for Cash. However, Cash was relying more on drugs than he had before. In 1965, he became close with Carter and, with her help, was able to overcome his addictions.
His career continued to ascend with tracks such as ‘Jackson’ and ‘Rosanna’s Going Wild’. In 1968, the pair married and Johnny released the album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Recorded during a prison concert, the album was a huge success. The following year, he released another hit single, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and guested on Bob Dylan’s 1969 country-rock album Nashville Skyline. Dylan then appeared on the debut episode of The Johnny Cash Show, which ran in the US for two years.
Besides his network TV show, Cash continued with minor hits in the early 70s, but the 80s proved challenging as his recording career was less well received throughout those years (with exception to The Highwaymen project which teamed him up with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson).
In 1993, he signed a contract with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. His first album for the label was released in 1994 and was produced by Rubin. It was a moving collection of all-acoustic songs, also titled American Recordings.
Health problems plagued Cash throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, but he continued to record for Rubin and played the occasional live show when his stamina permitted. Cash campaigned for prisoners’ rights, was an outspoken voice for society’s underdogs, and remained socially aware as he aged. June Carter died in May 2003. On September 12, 2003 – four months after June Carter’s death – Cash died of complications from diabetes in Nashville, aged 71. Any fan realises that Cash was a haunted man whose demons were exorcised in his music, but out of the darkness his creativity poured forth. Cash’s irrepressible musical legacy lives on as new generations discover the Man In Black: a soulful troubadour who wrote music that is both touching and timeless – and one who became a cultural icon in the process.