Johnny Cash: 1932 to 2003
Forget country, alternative, hot, young or old. Set aside generation, class or education. For that matter, forget music. Johnny Cash was a seminal figure of 20th-century American culture. Like Hemingway or Sandburg, Bogart or Warhol, he was one of those artists who create something bigger than themselves without ever trying. No one plans to wind up in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. It just happens.
Cash — who died September 12 from complications of diabetes at age 71 — was born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, and grew up on a government-issue farm in Arkansas’ Dyess Colony, a New Deal self-help program some would (and did) call socialistic. The early poverty, struggles to survive coaxing cotton from black Delta lands as floods and tornadoes lurked nearby, and the tragic death of his older brother Jack informed the rest of his life.
In the mid-1950s, that time of paradigm shift in American music, Cash was in the vanguard. He joined Sun Records a year after Elvis, but Cash was different. He assimilated the rockabilly style, yet his music remained fundamentally country, with glimmers of Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Skinner in the mix.
Under Sam Phillips’ benevolent gaze, Cash recast liabilities as assets. He and his bandmates carved the bedrock Cash sound out of their own profound musical limitations. Cash’s forlorn vocals and percussive strumming, Luther Perkins’ “boom-chucka” electric guitar and Marshall Grant’s bass slapping coalesced into a barren, sparse sound that gives “Hey Porter” and “Folsom Prison Blues” the harsh beauty of a Walker Evans photo.
It didn’t matter that he lifted the melody for “Folsom” from legendary arranger Gordon Jenkins’ instrumental “Crescent City Blues” (after a lawsuit, they shared composer credit). Cash’s tormented, desperate lyrics bestowed immortality upon an otherwise nondescript tune.
When he left Sun for Columbia in 1958, he found an uncommonly sensitive producer in Don Law, the Art Satherley associate who had produced Robert Johnson’s material twenty years earlier. Law’s lassiez-faire approach encouraged Cash to embrace the album as a form of expression at a time few country performers perceived it as such. Phillips wouldn’t let him record a gospel album; Law did. Ballads Of The True West and Ride This Train quickly became landmarks in the Cash oeuvre.
At Cash’s memorial service, Kris Kristofferson reprised his immortal line from “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” by referring to Cash as a “walking contradiction,” and indeed, his life and art constituted a string of paradoxes. Proud of his ties to Billy Graham and other conservative cultural icons, he unflinchingly advocated prisoner and minority rights. His fan base embraced a crazy quilt of demographics, including affluent older folks who wouldn’t tolerate raw southern music. The inmates who watched him at Huntsville, Folsom and San Quentin saw an edgy, hard-living fellow outsider, even if in fact he spent only two nights in jail.
Cash allowed no one group to claim him. In 1964 he blasted disc jockeys who refused to play his angry version of Peter LaFarge’s “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes”. He battled the KKK after they circulated leaflets calling him “scum,” implying that his then-wife Vivian, an Italian-American, was a “negress” and their kids “mongrelized.” He performed for troops in Vietnam yet later called himself a “dove with claws.” He was also the first country artist that Rolling Stone, still a hippie tabloid at the time, ever profiled (May 25, 1968).
Invited to sing for Richard Nixon in 1970, he declined presidential requests to sing two recent hits parroting the administration’s mindset: Guy Drake’s mocking “Welfare Cadillac” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”. Cash claimed he hadn’t time to learn them. But that was his respect for the presidency talking; he wouldn’t sing what he didn’t believe in. He did, however, serenade the future unindicted Watergate co-conspirator with his current hit. The stirring original “What Is Truth” defended the very youth culture that the reactionary Nixon crew despised.
In the wake of the Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, “A Boy Named Sue”, and his CMA awards, Cash landed an even bigger prize in 1969: a weekly variety show. On “The Johnny Cash Show”, he freely supplemented the obligatory Vegas and Hollywood guests with acts seldom seen on network TV: his friend Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow among them. His “Ride This Train” musical segments were never less than inspired.
He used the immense clout he enjoyed in those days to promote a new generation of Nashville writers, Kristofferson and Larry Gatlin among them. While he set the stage for Waylon and Willie, he claimed no membership in the outlaw movement. Indeed, his 1980s work with Willie, Waylon and Kris in the Highwaymen seemed anticlimactic, even forced.
Peaks and valleys are inevitable within such a massive body of work, and Cash had his share. Tacky overproduction marred his later Sun material. At Columbia, following his late-’60s/early-’70s surge, he fell into lassitude before roaring back in 1976 with the novelty “One Piece At A Time” and masterpiece albums such as Silver and Johnny 99. When he faltered again in the mid-’80s (“The Chicken In Black” remains his nadir), Columbia dropped him. Aware that he’d been lax, Cash took it in stride.
Having repeatedly faced mortality through drug abuse and heart surgery, Cash acknowledged the approaching autumn, then pressed on. As a new generation on Music Row unleashed a torrent of empty artistic frauds on the public in the 1990s, most treated Cash and his peers as museum pieces worthy of no more than shallow lip service.
Connecting with Rick Rubin’s American Records was a rare stroke of good fortune for an artist from his generation. At a time many of his peers were re-recording their hits for packages sold on TV, Cash launched into an uncompromising series of albums reflecting his still audacious and indomitable spirit, each more compellingly artistic and ambitious than the last.
Not even neurological afflictions and the deaths of old friends such as Carl Perkins, Faron Young and Waylon stanched his creativity. His agonizingly beautiful rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” may stand as his exit number, yet as the end approached, Cash didn’t allow himself to wallow in despondency. On June Carter Cash’s moving swan song Wildwood Flower, the couple playfully revived Red Ingle’s 1947 hillbilly spoof “Tim-Tay-Shun”. That desire to entertain briefly elbowed aside their failing health.
He may not have achieved his long-stated desire to die onstage in mid-song surrounded by fans and band members, but Johnny Cash actually went it one better. He died surrounded by the world, going out in a way many desire but few achieve: at the absolute top of his game.