September 12, 2003
Johnny Cash - RIP

Johnny CashTo call him a country star is to call a Ferrari an adequate car. He was a country singer, a folk singer, a brooding, rugged outlaw who wrestled with life’s big questions and brought dignity and strength and a timeless grace to everything he touched. He became a voice for the disenfranchised and the working man – hence the Man in Black . He shaped the career of Bob Dylan ,Kris Kristofferson ,Waylon Jennings and countless others. He was a core influence on U2 ,White Stripes ,Queens Of The Stone Age ,Slipknot ,Coldplay ,The Strokes – in fact just about anyone who wanted their music to remain on the mean side, with hips and swagger and truth.

From the NME Obituary

Known as the "The Man in Black" to millions of music fans around the world, Cash struggled up from Depression-era sharecropper roots and became a true folk hero by listening to the myriad marginalized voices around him and setting them to song.

"Johnny Cash was a guy who was really an American cultural icon," said longtime Atlanta country music disc jockey Rhubarb Jones.

"What I loved about Johnny Cash is ... Johnny Cash had a great sense of humor -- a very funny guy," Jones told his listeners on Eagle 106.7 this morning. "We're not going to mourn his passing, we're going to celebrate his life."

As much an American icon as Mark Twain or Woody Guthrie or John Wayne, Cash created a persona that often seemed to overshadow his genius as a writer and performer. A country music archetype who helped invent rock and roll, he always returned for solace to the gospel music of his youth.

He was a member of the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When his baritoned-bass voice announced itself with the words "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," it elicited a sense of recognition that transcended space and time and musical genres. As his friend Kris Kristofferson pictured him in song, Cash was "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."

Embraced by presidents, preachers and punks, he performed at the Nixon White House and on evangelist Billy Graham's crusades. He also staggered through outlaw days, when he infamously kicked out the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, and got caught trying to smuggle amphetamines across the Mexican border in his guitar case.

"Yes my dad was crazy," Cash's daughter, singer Rosanne Cash, said of those wild years. "He was the prototypical rock star on the road."

"His influence spread over many generations of different people," said Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. "I loved him as singer and a writer. I remember years ago a big part of our repertoire was two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, 'I Walk The Line' and 'Ballad Of A Teenage Queen.'''

Elvis Costello, who once recorded with Cash, called him "a great, great man. ... He made me feel very welcome in his home and I will never forget that."

Country singer Barbara Mandrell recalled his star quality.

"Truly I can only think of two people in my life, where you knew it when they were in the building just by their presence. The air would just get exciting and stimulating and electric even if you couldn't see them. Those two people were Johnny Cash and Billy Graham," she said.

Johnny R. Cash was born the fourth of seven children to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash in Kingsland, Ark., on Feb. 26, 1932. He grew up working in the cotton fields on the family farm in Dyess. But he preferred sitting on the porch steps, listening to the radio stations that drifted in from Memphis and singing along. By time he turned 12, he was writing his own songs.

During that same year, Cash experienced what may have been the pivotal event of his life. His brother Jack was mortally wounded while cutting fence posts. Just before Jack died, Cash said Jack floated out of his coma and spoke of seeing "a beautiful city" with "angels singing."

"The memory of Jack's death, his vision of heaven," Cash wrote in his autobiography, "have been more of an inspiration to me, I suppose, than anything that has ever come to me through any man."

Cash briefly moved to Detroit in his late teens to work in an auto plant, then joined the Air Force and served in Germany copying coded Russian radio transmissions. During his tour of duty, he bought his first guitar, and wrote one of his most famous songs, "Folsom Prison Blues." Inspired by a documentary on prison conditions, the song became a sure sign of the Cash style, its noir portrayal of profound loneliness containing a note of murderous menace in the soon-to-be famous line: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."

He was discharged from the service in 1954, and on the train ride home he wrote another song, "Hey Porter." Soon after, he married Vivian Liberto and the couple settled in Memphis, where Cash worked as a door-to-door appliance salesman and attended radio announcer's school on the G.I. Bill. But what he really wanted was to be heard singing his songs on the radio.

In 1955, Cash teamed with the Tennessee Two -- guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant -- and began recording at Sam Phillips' renowned Sun Studios. The trio had country-and-western hits with "Cry, Cry, Cry" in 1955 and "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1956.

Later in 1956, Cash had his first million-selling hit, "I Walk the Line," a stubborn, nearly obsessive testament to fidelity featuring an infectious scratching beat and the unforgettable opening declaration: "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine."

Dressed in his trademark black from head to toe, Cash materialized as a gangly young everyman, with a dark side deeper than his garb. His sound was elemental, with chunky guitar licks and a marching bass line that underscored the quavering boom of his voice.

Becoming a star -- alongside the likes of fellow Sun luminaries Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins -- Cash moved to California in 1958 and signed with Columbia Records. He released another string of hits, including the No. 1 hit "Ring of Fire." The song was written by June Carter (the daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter of the legendary Carter Family) about the tempestuous love affair she and Cash began while on tour together. But her lines about flames and "wild desire" could have just as easily described the self-destructive rampage Cash went on over the next nine years; he was arrested and jailed seven times and later described himself as a "raging terror."

Cash had already left his family and moved to Nashville when his wife Vivian divorced him. But in Nashville, he fell back on his relationship with June Carter, who in 1967 persuaded him return to Christianity and helped him kick his amphetamine addiction.

Cash and Carter married in 1968 and solemnized a personal, musical and spiritual partnership that lasted until Carter's death in May 2003. They had hit duets with both saucy send-ups like "Jackson" and heartfelt ballads like "If I Were A Carpenter."

In the late '60s and '70s, Cash emerged as both a mainstream and counterculture figure with comical songs such as "A Boy Name Sue" and topical numbers such as "Singin' In Vietnam Talkin' Blues." In typical fashion, he expressed opposition to the war, but went over to entertain the troops.

He became friends with Bob Dylan and recorded a duet, "Girl From The North Country" with him. He also wrote the liner notes for Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album. Dylan returned the favor by appearing on the first episode of ABC-TV's "The Johnny Cash Show" in 1969. The music-variety series lasted only two years, but it made Cash a name in households where country music was seldom heard.

Cash had hits into the '70s with songs such as "One Piece At a Time." By the mid-'80s, however, his long streak on the charts ended, along with his Columbia Records contract. After that, he was rarely played on country radio -- replaced, he complained, by "hat acts." Nonetheless he continued to tour with June at his side, later joined by their son John Carter Cash. He also made records with his lifelong friends, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, as the Highwaymen.

In 1989, Cash endured double bypass heart surgery and nearly died from complications, then underwent drug treatment for addiction to pain killers. Still alive, but with a career that was all but dead, he began a somewhat unlikely return to the pop music vanguard.

In 1993, he could be heard on U2's "Zooropa" disc, singing lead on the haunting, "The Wanderer."

In 1994, he joined with hip hop/metal producer Rick Rubin to create "American Recordings" -- a stark, often brooding collection that juxtaposed Cash's cavernous voice with his simply strummed acoustic guitar. With new songs by Cash and writers as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Glenn Danzig, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits, the critically acclaimed "American Recordings" made its way onto college and alternative radio play lists and earned a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1995.

Three more albums followed, much in the same vein as "American Recordings." "Unchained" (1996) featured backing from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and won a Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998. It also stirred controversy as Rubin's label placed an ad in Billboard that featured a 1970s photo of Cash with his middle finger extended and a caption that read: "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support."

In February 2000, Cash was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a proclamation for "prolific work" that "transcends both generations and genres."

Later that year, "Love, God, Murder," a three-disc retrospective of Columbia material, focused on the three major themes that have dominated his songwriting. "American III: Solitary Man" followed soon after.

In his final years, Cash's ebony raiment stood out against his care-lined face and shock of thinning gray hair, giving him the look of an Old Testament prophet.

On the title track of 2003's "The Man Comes Around" -- the fourth of his "American Recordings" discs -- he wrote of the last judgment in lines filled with terror and joy.

"I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote," Cash recalled in the liner notes. "It's based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources."

Most recently, Cash was recognized for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" with seven nominations at last month's MTV Video Music Awards. He had hoped to attend the event but couldn't because of his hospital stay. The video won for best cinematography.

Cash's legacy seems assured. He recorded more than 1,500 songs, on more than 500 albums. He performed in films and on television and on countless stages, from flatbed trucks to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

But it was his voice that always set him apart. Whether speaking or singing, it carried the profound power of believability and dignity.

Once again, Kristofferson may have put it best: "Johnny Cash's voice is the perfect voice for a man of his spirit. It's unmistakable. It doesn't sound like anybody else. And it sounds like the real thing, which is what he is."

And always will be.

Posted by tstubbs at September 12, 2003 06:33 PM | Trackback
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