Johnny Cash: 1932–2003
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
All of us who love music will miss Johnny Cash.
Even toward the end there was an enormous amount of warmth in his watery hangdog eyes — a sense of generosity and spirit that spilled through the veil of his obvious pain. When he lost his wife and savior, June Carter Cash, to heart disease on May 16, we felt for him even more, because we knew his pain had become more acute. And few expected that he would last much longer.
Cash, who died from complications of diabetes in the early hours of last Friday, was a part of the lives of several generations. His career stretched back almost 50 years. And though music is often a dividing line between ages, classes and cultures, his live and recorded performances transcended all of that. There was magic in his battered baritone singing, a blend of tough-guy bravado and paternal assurance that transcended language and borders. And there was that beat — the big, bold, hard-chiseled boom-chukka of his and Luther Perkins’s guitars that sounded so damn deep and good to any set of ears.
That rhythm embodied the sound of America’s pumping heart. Every time Cash employed his scratchy strum and Perkins sat on those alternating bass notes, Cash’s music took on a beautiful momentum. It was born from his own desire to reach people and make them move, but it nonetheless captured the good-hearted quality within the American spirit that makes us want to keep pushing ahead and excel, or, at least in hard times like these, endure with dignity, strength, and hope. With that rhythm, Cash’s music explained more about what is fine and honorable about our country than any modern-era politician.
Then there were his stories. Not only have we lost a great man — not a perfect man, but a great one — we have also lost a piece of the connective tissue of our culture. Cash was a link to some of American music’s earliest roots. He absorbed songs from the past through his contact with Maybelle Carter, June’s mother and one of the original architects of country music, and many other older musicians who passed on to him what they’d heard their parents, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and itinerant Appalachian banjo pickers or Delta bluesmen play. In Cash’s songs we can hear the voices of sharecroppers and prospectors, of lovers and murderers, of preachers and sinners, of lonesome cowboys looking for spiritual solace and happy shoeshine boys popping rags on street corners.
Cash’s recordings are just the tip of the mountainous repository of American folklore he kept in his head, and now so many of those numbers will be buried with him. But we are fortunate. He recorded more than 1500 songs beginning in the mid 1950s, when he became the first major hitmaker for Memphis’s legendary Sun Records labels. His early years were similar to those of the African-American musicians who first recorded for Sun founder Sam Phillips. Born in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932, to poor sharecroppers with four other children, Johnny was carrying water for a road gang at 10 and toiling in the cotton fields with nine-foot sacks strapped to his shoulders when he was 12.
By then he was also writing songs, and he first performed in high school, singing on radio station KLCN in nearby Blytheville, Arkansas. He enlisted in the Air Force when the Korean War erupted and was sent to Germany as a cryptographer. There he purchased his first guitar and wrote more numbers, including "Folsom Prison Blues," which was inspired by the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.
After his discharge, Cash moved to Memphis aiming to become a performer. He married his first wife, Vivian, and met guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant there. They became his original band, the Tennessee Two, which later evolved into the Tennessee Three with the addition of drummer Bill Holland.
Although Phillips turned down Cash at his first audition, branding his material "too country," in 1955 Johnny’s "Hey Porter" backed with "Cry, Cry, Cry" became Sun’s first huge hit record. They were quickly followed by "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "There You Go," and "Orange Blossom Special," the latter a cover of a 1936 recording by North Carolina fiddle-and-vocals team the Rouse Brothers.
Cash was a prototypical Sun artist. Like label owner Sam Phillips and the majority of Sun’s earliest stars, including rocker Elvis Presley and bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, he grew up during the Depression in a dirt-poor agricultural community where blacks and whites — and their music — mixed. And Memphis was the perfect place from which to launch his career.
"Memphis was made up of country people," the late Sam Phillips told me two years ago, reflecting on the crucible from which his label’s influential ’50s discs emerged. "There’s a heavy black population here, and the black churches are so active. Their sound and old-time country were the heartbeat of what we did." Cash took his inspiration from both. When the singer, whose sartorial tastes earned him his "Man in Black" moniker, left Sun in 1958, it was in part because Phillips had no interest in the gospel album he wanted to make, though Cash also desired the more lucrative royalties and the higher profile an affiliation with the major label Columbia might bring.
And it did. His first Columbia single, the cowboy ballad "Don’t Take Your Guns to Town," put him on the charts for six weeks. His debut Columbia album, 1959’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash, sold 400,000 copies and was followed by three more hits including "Luther Played the Boogie" and "I Got Stripes."
Just before departing Sun, Cash had become addicted to the amphetamines that made his life a wild, often reckless ride for a decade, until his second wife, June Carter Cash, helped him kick in 1967. Fueled by drugs, he stormed through that period of his career playing an endless string of dates and recording sessions, but not without incident. In 1958, he blew up a brand-new Cadillac he was driving in an incident involving pills and an open tank of propane. He also started a fire that raged while he nodded in California’s Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge, killing 49 of 53 endangered condors that lived there. And for all his songs about prisons and ex-cons, the only time he saw the inside of a cell was when he tried to smuggle a suitcase containing his stash over the border to Mexico.
Nonetheless, Cash’s career continued to boom, and it got only better after he kicked his addiction and married June in ’67. Carter had already been a part of his touring troupe for several years, and his duet partner on such major hits as "Jackson" and "Guitar Pickin’ Man," as well as the co-writer of "Ring of Fire." She would remain the anchor of his life until her own death, helping him combat several lapses back into dependency and reigning as queen to his king of country music.
The last step in building that kingdom was, perhaps, The Johnny Cash Show, a prime-time variety program on the ABC TV network that brought Cash a level of exposure no artist in his genre had enjoyed. During its 1969-’71 run, the show introduced the deepest country-music traditions to a new audience in its weekly performances by Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters. Cash also used his power to expose songwriters whose work he deemed important to a wider audience. He hosted the first national television appearances of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Kris Kristofferson, whose "Sunday Morning Coming Down" remains one of Cash’s most admired and touching recordings.
In the 1970s, Johnny became an actor, starring with Kirk Douglas in the gritty Western A Gunfight and appearing with Peter Falk on TV’s Columbo. As the decade ended, his popularity crested. Even a mid-’80s alliance with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kristofferson as the Highwaymen brought only moderate success.
Nonetheless, he continued to record prolifically and tour often. Although radio, which through the 1990s grew increasingly corporate and restrictive in its programming, rarely played his recordings, on stage he had no difficulty in proving he’d retained his vitality as a performer. In 1993, he signed a deal with alternative-rock and rap producer Rick Rubin’s American label that yielded the next year’s acoustic solo American Recordings. The album dipped into Cash’s back catalogue — resurrecting murder ballads like the chilling "Delia’s Gone" and songs of faith like the Kristofferson-penned prayer "Why Me Lord" — and plucked dark contemporary tunes from the likes of Nick Lowe ("The Beast in Me") and Glenn Danzig ("Thirteen") to introduce Cash to yet another generation of listeners as the godfather of gangster rock and rap. He recorded four more albums for Rubin, including last year’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which included his Grammy-nominated performance of Trent Reznor’s "Hurt."
Cash’s version of that song seems a painfully honest expression of what it’s like to stare into mortality’s jaws. By then he’d been sidelined from the stage for four years by autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system that often left him exhausted and forced him to travel most comfortably in a wheelchair. Although his illness made him terribly frail, he was well tended by June and his family, and he occasionally gave interviews and regularly welcomed visitors to his home outside Nashville, where he died in a hospital last week.
Cash left behind a legacy of recorded music that was recognized in his lifetime by stacks of awards. He won 11 Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. Two of his Grammys were for the album liner notes to his own At Folsom Prison and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. He was also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. His Sun Records predecessor Elvis Presley is the only other artist so honored by both institutions.
The wide range of Cash’s influence was reflected in the outpouring of remembrances issued after his death from a list of performers that included Sheryl Crow, the Neptunes, Moby, Rodney Crowell, Metallica, and Justin Timberlake. But perhaps the best indicator of his importance as an artist and of the love he earned from all kinds of music listeners was that his songs were heard everywhere on the day of his death — from WFNX, where a moment of silence was followed by a format-breaking broadcast of "I Walk the Line," to National Public Radio to jacked-up Toyotas with tinted glass windows to restaurants, my local post office, and shops and factories of all kinds. It was proof that Johnny Cash touched us all, and that we’ll never forget him.