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Johnny Cash

+ {Highwayman]

Possibly the most revered and influential country singer ever, and certainly the one who enjoyed the most credible crossover success (from `I Walk The Line’ for Sun Records in ’56 to `One Piece At A Time’ for Columbia in ’76), JOHNNY CASH reversed the time honoured process of creative decline by recording some of his most compelling sets in the final decade of his life. These albums won him a whole new generation of admirers and sealed his legendary status, while the awards – the haunting video for his cover of NINE INCH NAIL’s `Hurt’, scooped the Best Cinematography category at the 2003 MTV Video Music Award – kept coming right up until the end. The appropriately-named biopic, Walk The Line, was completed in 2005 two years after his death, and starred Joaquin Phoenix in the CASH role.
Born February 26, 1932, Kingsland, Arkansas (where a statue of “The Man in Black” now stands), he was the third of seven children born to poor sharecropper parents, Ray and Annie Cash. Johnny attended Dyess High School in Arkansas and won his first talent contest at age 17. He duly joined the US Air Force and served overseas in Germany, being honourably discharged in July 1954 as a Staff Sergeant; his other jobs included salesman, assembly line worker and margarine factory operative. He taught himself guitar during his enlistment, and started to piece together several songs, including `Folsom Prison Blues’ and `I Walk The Line’.
Young CASH, however, was destined for greater things; the birth of rock’n’roll, or more correctly its rockabilly predecessor, was the perfect vehicle for his budding singing and songwriting talents. After initially playing in a combo alongside Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, called the Tennessee Two, Johnny’s perseverance with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, led him to sign for the man in 1955. He was now a fellow stable-mate to rockers ROY ORBISON, JERRY LEE LEWIS, CARL PERKINS and a little-known truck driver named ELVIS PRESLEY (the latter three and JC were to become known as “The Million Dollar Quartet”).
While the other giants of the genre took the rock-y road, CASH churned out a string of country-flavoured crossover hit singles: namely `I Walk The Line’, `Ballad Of A Teenage Queen’, `Guess Things Happen That Way’, `The Ways Of A Woman In Love’, `All Over Again’ (his debut for Columbia Records), `Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ and `I Got Stripes’; most of these jewels one could purchase (although many didn’t!) on Sun Records LPs, WITH HIS HOT AND BLUE GUITAR (1957) {*7} and Sings: THE SONGS THAT MADE HIM FAMOUS (1958) {*7}. Standing proud among his LP flops for Columbia (although only in the 50s) was his lonesome Top 20 entry, THE FABULOUS JOHNNY CASH (1958) {*8}.
Adding drummer W.S. Holland to his “Tennessee Three” (note the name change), the early 60s passed off relatively quiet for the man in black, while excessive pill-popping and booze were blamed for declining sales in both singles and albums; e.g. his theme to `Bonanza!’ only just scraped into the Hot 100.
Duly leaving his wife, the long-suffering Vivien Liberto (whom he wed in ’54) and four daughters, including future starlet ROSANNA CASH, for the bright lights, big city of New York, Johnny would time and again fall foul of the law. A meeting back stage with rising star, JUNE CARTER (an erstwhile member of the legendary all-singing CARTER FAMILY), led to CASH borrowing a track she’d penned with Merle Kilgore: `Ring Of Fire’; an appropriate song for a troubled man, typical of his slow western, macho, half-spoken/half-sung drawl, and a welcome return to the Top 20. The transitional country-folk LP, BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS (1963) {*6} and the career retrospective Top 30 set, RING OF FIRE: THE BEST OF JOHNNY CASH (1963) {*8}, kept the wolf from the door, although it only fuelled coin for his wayward habits. His rising fame ran parallel with a notorious reputation offstage as a violent, hot-headed, heavy boozer and pill-popper, although these indiscretions were partially swept under the carpet with further Top 50 hits, `The Matador’ and `Understand Your Man’; the latter a C&W No.1. With friend June at his side on harmony vocals, his reading of DYLAN’s `It Ain’t Me Babe’, gave him yet another minor hit late in ‘64, while some several months later in Britain, the poignancy of the ballad heralded in his first Top 30 smash. Albums of the time included three Top 100 entries: BITTER TEARS (BALLADS OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS) (1964) {*7} – augmented by the songs of folkie outlaw PETER LA FARGE, ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL (1965) {*7}, the part-narrative double-set sings the ballads of THE TRUE WEST (1965) {*6}, and kooky children’s set EVERYBODY LOVES A NUT (1966) {*6}; the latter showcased numbers by Jack Clement, RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT and SHEL SILVERSTEIN.
A star on a death-wish, run-ins with the customs on an amphetamine smuggling charge, curtailed his acceptance in the Grand Ole Opry, although smashing some of the venues footlights probably didn’t help matters. As his career soared, so his personal life disintegrated, ending in divorce after a stormy marriage to wife, Vivien. Having recently released CARRYIN’ ON WITH JOHNNY CASH & JUNE CARTER (1967) {*5}, Johnny tied the knot with June in March 1968, and her calming influence on him was to prove a major factor in the style and quality of his subsequent recordings – but not always!
Along with the infamous “Prison” live albums (Grammy award winners both), his bad-boy image established his blue-collar following and consolidated his position as the champion of the underdog in America. He rapidly established himself as the hottest property in country music, selling over fifty million records and even outselling the Beatles in America for a time. The first of these definitive, ground-breaking LPs, JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON (1968) {*9} was quintessential CASH, turning the troubled troubadour into an outlaw hero for the common man. His wry sense of humour and goofball gravitas creates a subtle-as-a-sledgehammer approach on performances of `Folsom Prison Blues’, `Cocaine Blues’, `Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog’ and `Jackson’.
Unleashed a year later, and dedicated to his sadly missed stalwart guitarist, Luther Perkins, the formula was again in full force on the chart-topping JOHNNY CASH AT SAN QUENTIN (1969) {*9}. Rebellious to a tee, the resulting TV Special soundtrack album was just ten tracks, including two renditions of a brand new song he’d just written `San Quentin’ and various acerbic banter between CASH, the inmates and the guards. Star of the show was undoubtedly his million-selling version of SHEL SILVERSTEIN’s hilarious `A Boy Named Sue’, while the audience-requested `I Walk The Line’ and his DYLAN collaboration, `Wanted Man’, were also worth the admission price alone – then again, er… maybe not.
As the decade turned over a new leaf, JC became involved in TV, hosting the Johnny Cash Show and bringing many cult names, BOB DYLAN, NEIL YOUNG, HANK WILLIAMS Jnr., et al, to a wider audience. Cut at the height of the man’s prison revival, I WALK THE LINE (1970) {*6} was the first – and the most downbeat – of two period soundtracks, recorded in Nashville within weeks of each other. His Sun breakthrough was once again the centrepiece, but it’s a solemn meditation without the whoop and spark of his country “jailhouse” rock. CASH – on the cusp of 40 – sounded like a man alternately wearied and consoled by his years, narrating aspects of his own life as much as the events of the film. Attendant 45, `Flesh And Blood’, could be an open love letter to his recent bride, June Carter, even as `Hungry’ distilled the suffocation of routine and `Face Of Despair’ addressed ageing. Accompaniment was minimal, as unobtrusive as his voice is biblical, and while the congregational sing-a-longs were fine in the context of a CASH album, the orchestrations were less welcome.
With CARL PERKINS and The Tennessee Three sharing both the cover and the songwriting credits, LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY (1970) {*5}, was the yang to I Walk The Line’s yin. The rhythms were rambling, the lyrics unapologetic, projecting their time-honoured love-em-and-leave-em tropes on to Robert Redford and his geeky sidekick. CASH’s basso profundo has a ball with the cavernous vowels of `Rollin’ Free’; holding court in that high-horse drawl usually reserved for his juicier narratives.
Influenced by wife June, CASH swapped his cowboy boots for sandals, making a documentary and double-LP, THE GOSPEL ROAD (1973) {*3}, while various religious organisations and charities benefitted from Jesus CASH-in; for purist C&W fans, its endless narration was a tad too monotonous for his long-time audience. However, the record did feature several like-minded songwriters, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, JOHN DENVER, JOE SOUTH, and of course, CASH himself. It was no surprise when the ambitious set only hit No.12 in the CM charts.
Johnny continued to tour non-stop during the 70s and 80s, including shows for Vietnam draftees and tours behind the then Iron Curtain. Two books were published, Man In Black (1975) and Man in White (1987). The fickle 80s also saw John becoming a member of “outlaw” country band, The HIGHWAYMEN, alongside KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, WAYLON JENNINGS and WILLIE NELSON, with whom he toured the world to sell-out concerts and further recording success.
The 90s, meanwhile, saw CASH resurrected as an alternative hero (via a guest track – `The Wanderer’ – on U2’s 1993 album, “Zooropa”) through Rick Rubin and his American imprint. The release of comeback set, AMERICAN RECORDINGS (1994) {*8}, captured the best elements of the man in black’s religious stance, while resurrecting his simplistic, traditional country roots. Alongside a handful of his own pieces (`Redemption’, `Drive On’ and `Like A Soldier’ stood out), Rubin picked out some inspired covers from the likes of GLENN DANZIG, TOM WAITS, LEONARD COHEN, NICK LOWE and LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III.
He garnered even more critical kudos with 1996’s UNCHAINED {*7}, wherein he even had near unrecognisable cracks at SOUNDGARDEN’s `Rusty Cage’, BECK’s `Rowboat’ and TOM PETTY’s `Southern Accents’. His compositions were still covered by the day’s up-and-coming artists, while his frequent appearances on MTV kept his popularity high, despite failing health (Parkinson’s Disease) and a less rigorous tour schedule. He was now the head of a family of five, the most famous of whom, ROSANNE CASH, is a noted C&W star in her own right. He’s even been inducted into all of music’s four Halls of Fame: Songwriters (1989), Rock’n’Roll (1992), Rockabilly (1994), and, of course, Country Music (1980); a unique achievement among his peers, as is his grand total of seven Grammys, three multi-platinum albums, and 130 (yes 130!) country hits on the Billboard charts.
The man in black made a startling comeback album, AMERICAN III: SOLITARY MAN (2000) {*8}, a sort of half covers album and a musician’s jamboree all in one. CASH not only covered such jewels as the NEIL DIAMOND title song, TOM PETTY’s `I Won’t Back Down’ and U2’s `One’, but he also did a fantastic job at recreating fellow baritone crooner WILL OLDHAM’s `I See A Darkness’, to much heightened effect. MERLE HAGGARD, the bluegrass legend popped in to lend his voice to the CASH penned `I’m Leaving Now’, while he basically transformed his own `Field Of Diamonds’ from jangling country to a heartfelt holler. But it was the lonesome guitar and theatrical piano trills on NICK CAVE’s `The Mercy Seat’ that really put things in perspective; when CASH sings, “…and I’m not afraid to die”, one knows he really feels it, shining a whole new light on the meaning behind the track. And perhaps that was the biggest compliment one could pay such a revered figure as CASH: each song he covered came into its own through his extraordinary talent and minimalistic guitar playing – not to mention Rubin’s “live” production. That was the kind of power that JOHNNY CASH’s music would and will always command.
And so to the last chapter of his critical rebirth and sadly, the last chapter of his life. AMERICAN IV: THE MAN COMES AROUND (2002) {*6} continued with the strategy of edifying contemporary songs with a lifetime’s worth of hard-won experience. Again, the ones which worked best were the ones least likely to succeed on paper, such as TRENT REZNOR’s `Hurt’ and DEPECHE MODE’s `Personal Jesus’. Released as a double-A single, the songs made the UK Top 40, while the compelling, revelatory video was nominated at the MTV video music awards; if one is moved by `Hurt’ (a funeral song to many), The BEATLES’ `In My Life’, EWAN MacCOLL’s `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and EAGLES’ `Desperado’ (featuring DON HENLEY), then JC had done his job.
JOHNNY CASH finally succumbed to his ongoing health problems on September 12, 2003, at the age of 71 from diabetes complications, ironically just four months after the death of his wife/soul-mate, JUNE CARTER.
On a footnote to the inspirational, and now spiritual “American” series, the chart-topping AMERICAN V: A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS (2006) {*7} and Top 3 AMERICAN VI: AIN’T NO GRAVE (2010) {*7}, rounded off a landmark period for the man – now in white. Artists such as SPRINGSTEEN, LIGHTFOOT, SHERYL CROW and KRISTOFFERSON, should and would be proud Johnny chose their respective songs to sign off a remarkable life. Few recording artists pushed their creative boundaries as long and as hard as JOHNNY CASH, while even fewer – if any – managed to sustain that achievement (and – for what it’s worth – confound and impress contemporary critics) right up until their final days. And for that we should be grateful.
Of late, further “Legacy” recordings were unearthed. One of these OUT AMONG THE STARS (2014) {*6} was endorsed by John Carter Cash and produced by Billy Sherrill way back in the early 80s. Considered too sugary for release by Johnny himself, CASH and country fans should salivate over the train-truckin’ tracks such as the recognisable `I’m Movin’ On’ (featuring WAYLON JENNINGS), `Baby Ride Easy’ (with June Carter Cash) and the almost made-for-semi-autobiographical `I Drove Her Out Of My Mind’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD/LCS-BG // rev-up MCS May2013-Oct2014

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