A boy from the Mississippi delta,
he transcended country and
to become an American icon
Saturday 13 September 2003
This article was first published
on guardian.co.uk at 02.08 BST
on Saturday 13
It was last updated at 02.08 BST
on Saturday 13 September 2003.
Country music has grown from humble origins into one of the
largest sectors in the American entertainment industry, but none of its current
superstars will ever attain the mythic aura of Johnny Cash, who has died of
complications from diabetes aged 71.
During the 70s and 80s Cash found himself out of favour in
country music's hometown of Nashville. Yet he had, as his step-daughter Carlene
Carter put it, "built that town in a lot of ways." It took the hip hop/heavy
metal entrepreneur Rick Rubin to appreciate how much Cash had meant, and how
much he still had to offer. Rubin invited Cash to make an album on his American
record label. The result, 1994's American Recordings, featured just Cash, his
acoustic guitar and that great booming baritone voice, playing songs by Leonard
Cohen, Tom Waits and Kris Kristofferson alongside strong material of his own.
Forty years after he had begun his professional career with Sun Records in
Memphis, Cash had returned to renew his claim to being a great country singer
and an American legend.
He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, and remembered, when he was three, the
family moving to Dyess Colony on the Mississippi delta in 1935, where his
father, Ray, worked on a federal land-reclamation scheme. "The entire family, my
parents, two brothers and two sisters spent the first night in the truck under a
tarpaulin," Cash recalled. "The last thing I remember before going to sleep was
my mother beating time on the old Sears-Roebuck guitar, singing What Would You
Give In Exchange For Your Soul." Cash's 1959 hit record, Five Feet High And
Rising, recalled the night the family had to be evacuated when the river
Living by the "Big River" as a child, Cash soaked up work songs, church music,
and country & western from radio station WMPS in Memphis, or the broadcasts from
Nashville's Grand Ole Opry on Friday and Saturday evenings. At night, he stayed
awake to listen to music drifting up from the Mexican border stations. Cash got
religion when he was 12, and the death of his brother Jack in an accident with a
circular saw intensified his faith to the point of fervour.
He graduated from Dyess High School in 1950, headed north to Detroit, and found
a job in a car-body factory in Pontiac, Michigan. However, he rapidly thought
better of it, and signed up for the United States Air Force. He was posted to
Landsberg, West Germany, and worked as a radio intercept officer, eavesdropping
on Soviet radio traffic. In Germany he began to cut his musical teeth, teaching
himself the guitar, trying his hand at songwriting, and playing in a band called
the Landsberg Barbarians. "We were terrible," he said later, "but that Lowenbrau
beer will make you feel like you're great. We'd take our instruments to these
honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started. I wrote Folsom
Prison Blues in Germany in 1953."
Back in the US he married Vivian Liberto, whom he had met during his basic
training in Texas, and the newlyweds moved to Memphis. At first, Cash struggled
to make a living as a household appliance salesman, but then his older brother
Roy, also living in Memphis, introduced him to the Tennessee Three - Luther
Perkins and Marshall Grant, plus AW "Red" Kernodle on steel guitar.
The foursome gained experience playing parties and church functions, while Cash
mounted a persistent campaign to persuade Sam Phillips (Obituary August 28
2003), who ran Sun Studios in Memphis, to grant them an audition. Phillips
finally succumbed and summoned the group to play for him in the spring of 1955.
It was all too much for an overawed Kernodle, who never turned up, but the
remaining three delivered a sparse, vibrant rendition of a brand new Cash song,
Hey Porter. The interplay between Grant's thumping bass, Perkins's jittery lead
guitar and Cash's choked strumming was, in its way, as revolutionary as anything
Elvis Presley (Obituary, August 17 1977) or Carl Perkins (Obituary, January 20
1998) would accomplish with Sun.
Phillips was duly impressed, dispatched Cash to write a hit single, and by the
summer Johnny Cash and the newly-named Tennessee Two had their first hit, Cry,
Cry, Cry coupled with Hey Porter on the B side. Classic songs were soon pouring
out of Cash. His next release was Folsom Prison Blues, then came I Walk The
Line, Big River, Home Of The Blues and Guess Things Happen That Way.
While at Sun, Cash also wrote You're My Baby for Roy Orbison (Obituary December
8 1988) and Get Rhythm for Elvis Presley. "The Elvis I knew was a kid full of
fun," said Cash. "He loved his work, loved his music, loved his guitar, loved
gospel music and loved his mother."
Sun's first album release was Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar, but the
tight-fisted Phillips decided he wanted no further Cash albums, and also didn't
fancy increasing the rising star's royalty rate. Cash's response was to move to
Columbia Records in 1958, simultaneously transplanting his band, family and
manager to Los Angeles. His first Columbia album, 1959's The Fabulous Johnny
Cash, was also his first US album chart entry, reaching number 19, and hit
singles were not long in coming, in the shape of Don't Take Your Guns To Town, I
Got Stripes, Five Feet High And Rising and The Ballad Of Johnny Yuma. In January
1960, he played the first of his celebrated prison shows at San Quentin, where
one of the inmates yelling him on was Merle Haggard, locked up on a burglary
With growing success came mounting pressures and demands. Scheduled to play up
to 300 concerts a year, Cash found himself becoming increasingly dependent on
amphetamines to keep going, even though he knew they were affecting his writing
and his recorded work. The quantity of his output remained high, but the quality
grew erratic, with Ring Of Fire his only big hit of the early 1960s. The flip
side of Cash's gritty, carved-from-stone persona was a tendency to preachiness,
and this came to the fore in a string of long-winded "concept" albums such as
Ride This Train (1960), Blood, Sweat And Tears (1963) and True West (1965).
Whereas his original strength had been his ability to get to the point with the
minimum of fuss, now he was growing pontifical.
Not that all his work form this period was without significance. His 1964 album
Bitter Tears, subtitled Ballads Of The American Indian, included Cash's
memorable treatment of Pete LaFarge's Ballad Of Ira Hayes, and was the first of
many instances of his willingness to speak up for outcasts and underdogs.
His problems with drugs landed him in trouble through bizarre incidents such as
driving a tractor into the lake behind his new house in Hendersonville, near
Nashville, and inadvertently starting a forest fire which cost him an $85,000
fine. His pill-popping reached crisis point in 1965, when he was jailed for
three days after being arrested in El Paso, smuggling amphetamines into the US
across the Mexican border.
Perhaps inevitably, his addiction affected his family life (even though he had
sired four daughters, including Rosanne who would become a respected singer and
songwriter), and Vivian eventually divorced him in 1967.
Luckily for Cash, he had already met June Carter (Obituary May 17 2003), who had
co-written Ring Of Fire with Merle Kilgore. The Carter clan was one of the
legendary dynasties of country music, and in the 1940s, June and her sisters
Helen and Anita would perform regularly with their mother, as Mother Maybelle
and the Carter Sisters.
During the 1960s, as Cash became increasingly fascinated by the scope and
history of American popular music, he often included the Carter Family in his
live shows. Johnny and June scored a hit with their duet version of Jackson in
They married in 1968, after he had dramatically proposed to her onstage the
previous autumn. "The love that John and I share with our love for Christ is one
of the most precious gifts God could have given us," she would write later. She
devoted herself to the twin pillars in her life, God and Johnny Cash, and was
determined to make her husband end his amphetamine addiction.
His career began to take on a broader, clearer shape. His 1968 album, Johnny
Cash At Folsom Prison, was a huge success and is still widely regarded as one of
the finest country records ever made. In June 1969, The Johnny Cash Show began
on ABC-TV. Based in Nashville, the show pulled in artists from every conceivable
genre, highlighting the breadth of Cash's tastes. Among guests who appeared on
the 88 shows Cash recorded were Mahalia Jackson, the Who, Neil Young, Louis
Armstrong and Bob Dylan (Cash struck up a rapport with Dylan which led to them
duetting on Girl From The North Country, on Dylan's 1969 country album Nashville
Skyline, for which Cash also wrote sleeve notes).
Career highlights continued to accrue. Johnny Cash At San Quentin (1969) spawned
a monster hit single with the tongue-in-cheek A Boy Named Sue, and the
Cash/Carter duet on If I Were A Carpenter enjoyed further chart-success and
scored a Grammy award. In 1971, Cash recorded the Man In Black album, the title
song containing a somewhat melodramatic declaration of intent:
"I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, living in the hopeless,
hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime... "
Cash was growing into his persona as American icon and beacon of integrity, even
if there were those who found the Johnny and June act somewhat overloaded with
treacly religiosity. (The Man In Black album even featured an appearance by
celebrity evangelist Billy Graham.)
His commanding presence lent itself to screen appearances. Trivia buffs may
recall his minor role in an episode of the 60s Clint Eastwood/Eric Fleming TV
western series Rawhide, though he received greater acclaim for his appearance
with Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight (1972), and appeared in a string of TV movies
including The Pride Of Jesse Hallam (1980); Murder In Coweta County (1983); The
Baron And The Kid (1984); and The Last Days Of Frank And Jesse (1986). He
appeared in episodes of Columbo, and in 1993 popped up in the television series
Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
He had achieved an apparently unassailable status, but by Cash's own admission,
"around 1972 or 1973, the excitement went out of my recording career." He could
still make hits, like One Piece At A Time or Ghost Riders In The Sky, but while
he had been capable of making tosh such as The Holy Land (1970), he could still
recognise that the stuff being peddled as "country" music was too middle of the
road for a veteran of the hard-rockin' Sun years like himself.
Columbia's ending of their 28-year relationship with the singer in 1986 stands
as one of the greatest gaffes ever perpetrated by the record business, and it
rankled with Cash more than he liked to acknowledge. Still, he was rapidly
signed by Mercury, with whom he recorded a batch of convincing albums including
Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town (1987), Water From The Wells Of Home (1988) and
Boom Chicka Boom (1990), the latter kicking off with Cash's trademark
observation, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Also during the 1980s, Cash teamed up
with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the
successful recording and touring outfit, the Highwaymen.
In 1988, Cash underwent double heart bypass surgery in Nashville, a warning bell
which triggered a re-evaluation of his remarkable career by younger generations
of listeners. That year, the British Red Rhino label issued 'Til Things Are
Brighter, featuring young artists covering Cash songs to raise money for Aids
research, and he was greatly touched by it. In 1992, he was inducted into the
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in New York, and that autumn Johnny and June
performed It Ain't Me Babe at the Madison Square Garden concert commemorating
Dylan's 30 years in the music business.
In 1993, Cash's gravelly baritone featured on The Wanderer, from U2's Zooropa
album ("I was thrilled to death, because I love that song," Cash enthused), and
in 1994 the American Recordings album amounted to a complete reappraisal of the
legend of Johnny Cash, and one which found a ready new audience. An appearance
at the Glastonbury Festival boosted his burgeoning new profile. A second album
on the American label, Unchained, was released in November 1996, and found Cash
mixing vintage country tunes by Jimmie Rodgers and the Louvin Brothers with
"alternative rock" songs from Soundgarden and Beck.
Three more albums for American followed, with 2002's The Man Comes Around in
particular earning rapturous critical acclaim for commanding reinventions of
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Desperado and Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus.
Given Cash's precarious health, it was a cruel irony that he was pre-deceased by
June last May, after she had undergone heart surgery. This wasn't long after
Cash had guested on his daughter Rosanne's album, Rules Of Travel, singing
lyrics which clearly signalled his own fragile mortality - "I cannot move
mountains now, I can no longer run" .
Johnny Cash was a country musician who was too big for country music, and his
work as artist, humanitarian, and patron of songs and songwriters will endure
He had one son, John, with June and four daughters, Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy and
Tara, with Vivian Liberto.