Rock Through the Ages: Johnny Cash 1932-2003

I'd like to wear a rainbow every day, and tell the world that everything is o.k. But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back. Until things are brighter, I'm the Man in Black.”- Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash, the man in black walks the lineJohnny Cash was a Grammy Award-winning American singer-songwriter and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Primarily a country music artist, his songs and sound spanned many other genres including rockabilly and rock and roll, as well as blues, folk and gospel. Cash was known for his deep, distinctive bass-baritone voice, the "freight train" sound of his Tennessee Three backing band, his demeanor, and his dark clothing, which earned him the nickname "The Man in Black". Johnny Cash traditionally started his concerts with the introduction "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash". Much of Cash's music, especially that of his later career, echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption.

Johnny Cash was born in the small town of Kingsland, in the hill country of southern Arkansas on February 26, 1932. Life had always been difficult there, but when the Great Depression destroyed the fragile agricultural economy of the region, Johnny's parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, could barely earn enough to feed their seven children. In 1935, the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged marginal farmers from the hill country to resettle in the more fertile soil of northeastern Arkansas. The Cash family took the government up on this offer and made the move. Working together, they cleared 20 acres of land to grow cotton. Johnny worked side by side with his parents on the farm. Cash was very close to his brother Jack, who was two years older. In 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling table saw in the mill where he worked, and cut almost in two. He suffered for over a week before he died. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. Music was an integral part of everyday life in the Cash household. John soaked up a variety of musical influences ranging from his mother's folk songs and hymns to the work songs from the fields and nearby railroad yards. He absorbed these sounds like sponge absorbs water. Johnny Cash began playing the guitar and writing songs at age 12. During high school, he performed frequently on radio station KLCN in Blytheville, Arkansas. While in the Air Force Cash organized his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. After his discharge in 1954, Cash returned stateside and married Vivian Liberto. He and his new bride soon settled in Memphis where Cash worked a variety of jobs and played music with his friends when he could. In 1954, Johnny Cash was signed to the Sun Records label owned by Sam Phillips, who had also discovered rock 'n rollers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Philips was impressed with the song "Hey Porter" Cash had written when he was returning home from the Air Force. When Phillips wanted a ballad for the b-side of "Hey Porter," Cash wrote "Cry, Cry, Cry" overnight. Johnny Cash and his sidemen, the Tennessee Two, began touring with Elvis Presley and the other Sun Records artists.

Johnny Cash, singer songwriter and music iconJohnny Cash recorded his signature hit Folsom Prison Blues, which he was inspired to write after seeing a powerful film about Folsom Prison. That same year, I Walk the Line marked his first No. 1 country hit. The following year, Cash released his debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar. Johnny began to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the Mecca of country music. His popularity increased so rapidly that by 1957, country music publications were rating him the top artist in the field. Cash moved near Ventura, California, in 1958, signed with Columbia, and began a nine-year period of alcohol and drug abuse. In 1964, Cash, who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian, recorded the album Bitter Tears on Native American themes. That same year, Johnny Cash appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, breaking down a perceived barrier between the genres of country and folk music. At Newport, he made the acquaintance of Bob Dylan. Dylan featured Cash on his own Nashville Skyline album and Cash recorded several of Dylan's songs. Johnny Cash had four daughters Rosanne , Kathy, Cindy, and Tara while married to Vivian, but his drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, and affairs with other women (including future wife June Carter) led Liberto to file for divorce in 1966.

Johnny Cash quit using drugs in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself, when he passed out on the floor. When he awoke, he had a change of heart and managed to struggle out of the cave by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved into Cash's mansion in Tennessee for a month to help him defeat his addiction. In 1968, 12 years after they had first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter, an established country singer, during a live performance in London, Ontario, marrying on March 1, 1968. He had proposed numerous times, but she had always refused. With June at his side, Johnny Cash made a triumphant comeback, selling out Carnegie Hall and breaking the Beatles' attendance record at London's Palladium.

Apart from his performances at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, and various other U.S. correctional facilities, Johnny Cash also performed at Österåkeranstalten (The Österåker Prison) north of Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. The recording was released in 1973. Between the songs Cash can be heard speaking Swedish which was greatly appreciated by the inmates. After he quit using drugs in the early 1970s, Cash rediscovered his Christian faith, taking an "altar call" in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area. Johnny Cash chose this church over many other larger, celebrity churches in the Nashville area because he said he was just another man there, and not a celebrity. In 1980, Johnny Cash was accepted as the youngest member of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame and, in 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Johnny Cash has won 10 Grammy Awards, including the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award. By the late '80s, his long streak of country hits had ended, and Johnny Cash complained to an interviewer that he'd been "purged" from Nashville, replaced by contemporary "hat acts."

In 1996 Johnny Cash released a well-received album, Unchained, on which he was backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and covered edgy songs by the likes of Beck and Soundgarden. Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around , released in 2002 continued his commercial success with his rendition of Nine Inch Nails' cover "Hurt." In a career spanning six decades, Cash has recorded over 1,500 songs, which predominantly expressed his empathy for the downtrodden and socially outcast. Johnny Cash's wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, died from complications following heart surgery in May, 2003. Johnny Cash followed her in death four months later succumbing to respiratory failure after a long struggle with diabetes. Even in death, Johnny Cash remains a powerful force in American culture. Only two years after his passing, a motion picture based on his life, Walk the Line, enjoyed worldwide critical and popular success. The film generated a revival of interest in Johnny Cash's life and work, assuring that another generation would find inspiration in the timeless sound of the Man in Black.
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Johnny Cash
Musician
Country and rock n roll singer and songwriter- Songs include "Folsom Prison Blues", "American IV: The Man Comes Around", "I Walk the Line ", "Ring of Fire"