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1933-2003: Johnny Cash

One of the greatest voices of American music, he was a legend who never stopped being a common man

October 16, 2003
Johnny Cash on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Johnny Cash on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

For so long it seemed that even death would have to back off from a final confrontation with the daunting eminence of Johnny Cash. Even after the singer was found to have an incurable, degenerative disease in 1997, he did not back down. Despite frequent hospitalizations, he recorded some of the best music of his career, made himself available for interviews, oversaw reissues of his extensive catalog of albums and made a heart-stopping video that racked up six nominations at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. On the night nearly six years ago when, from a concert stage in Michigan, he first publicly announced that he was ill, he said of his disease, "I refuse to give it some ground in my life." As always with Johnny Cash, his word proved rock-solid.

But when June Carter Cash, his wife of thirty-five years and the exquisite love of his life, died suddenly in May, it became anybody's guess how long Cash would be able to tolerate this world without her. This was the woman for whom he had written "Meet Me in Heaven": "At the end of the journey," he sang, "When our last song is sung/Will you meet me in heaven someday?" Perhaps Bono, who invited Cash to perform on U2's Zooropa put it best when the subject of Cash's death came up. "You know, maybe it's not that sad," he said. "I mean, it's sad for us. But June went off to prepare the house. And he wasn't long behind her."

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The incomparable Johnny Cash, the self-proclaimed Man in Black, a giant of country music and one of the founding fathers of rock & roll, died on September 12th in Nashville, of complications from diabetes. He was seventy-one years old. He was a songwriter most noted for his ability – in classics such as "I Walk the Line," "I Still Miss Someone," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" – to distill complex existential dilemmas into the common imagery of everyday speech. It was a talent perfectly suited to his sturdy baritone voice, a no-nonsense instrument that made every lyric he sang sound as if it had been honed to its absolute, incorruptible essence. He won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and, other than Elvis Presley, he is the only performer to be elected to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

And if there were a hall of fame for creating larger-than-life personae, Cash would no doubt have been elected to it as well. His 1971 song "Man in Black" codified an image that the singer had assumed naturally for more than fifteen years at that point. Part rural preacher, part outlaw Robin Hood, he was a blue-collar prophet who, dressed in stark contrast to the glinting rhinestones and shimmering psychedelia of the time, spoke truth to power. "Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day," he sang, "And tell the world that everything's OK/But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back/Till things are brighter, I'm the man in black." It was a self-dramatization that would hold him in good stead more than two decades later, when a younger audience would thrill to his effortless candor and air of authenticity. To the end, he would live up to his friend Kris Kristofferson's terse characterization of him: "He's a walking contradiction/Partly truth and partly fiction."

Apart from his mother's unshakable belief in his musical talent – "God has his hand on you, son," she told him when he was a boy, "don't ever forget the gift" – little in Cash's impoverished background suggested that the extraordinary life he would lead was possible. He was one of seven children, born to a sharecropping family in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26th, 1932. He absorbed all styles of popular music from the radio and spirituals from church and the singalongs on the porch of his family's home and in the cotton fields where he worked until he graduated from high school. He moved to Michigan and briefly worked at an automobile plant before enlisting in the Air Force. "I spent twenty years in the Air Force," he once remarked, "from 1950 to 1954." After leaving the military, he married his first wife, Vivian Liberto, moved to Memphis, took a job as an appliance salesman and pursued his musical ambitions.

With guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, the Memphis label that launched Elvis Presley. Cash's first single, "Cry, Cry, Cry"/"Hey Porter," was released in 1955, but "I Walk the Line" made him a star the next year. On those songs, and others such as "Get Rhythm" and "Folsom Prison Blues," the Tennessee Three, with Cash on acoustic guitar, defined a scratchy, minimalist rockabilly style that proved hugely influential.

Phillips' fixation on Presley did not always sit well with Cash. "John told me a really funny story about the Sun Records days," says Tom Petty, who worked on Cash's 1996 album, Unchained. "I think he was headed somewhere in Texas, and Elvis had a hit record at the time. Phillips told him, 'I've got to get some Elvis records over to Texas, so I'm going to put these in the trunk, and you can give them to the promoter when you get there.' So John told me, 'We were crossing this high ridge in Tennessee, and I just had to sail one of those records off the cliff there. We wound up pitching every one of those records off the ridge like Frisbees.'"

Cash left Sun himself in 1958, when Phillips refused to allow him to make a gospel album, and signed with Columbia, where he remained for nearly three decades before being dropped in 1986. Despite his early success, his career began to sputter in the mid-Sixties, in part because of his addiction to amphetamines. He earned a reputation as an uncontrollable wild man. "He was skinny as a snake, and you just never knew what he was going to do," said Kristofferson, who met Cash around this time. "He just looked like he might explode at any minute." Cash's marriage to Liberto also began to disintegrate. "He was always on the road," Rosanne Cash, one of his daughters from that marriage, told Rolling Stone. "And he was deep in his drug addiction, so when he came home, he was pretty screwed up."

In the meantime, Cash had met June Carter, who was performing with her mother and sisters as the Carter Family, the current version of an act that three decades earlier had helped build the foundation of country music. Both Cash and Carter were married, both were deeply attracted to each other, and June, at least, was terrified of Cash's hellbent, self-destructive streak and the ardency of her emotions. She rendered those feelings powerfully in "Ring of Fire," a song she wrote with country star Merle Kilgore. "I was frightened of his way of life," Carter said in Rolling Stone three years ago. "So I thought, 'I can't fall in love with this man, but it's just like a ring of fire.' I wanted to play that song for John, but I knew he would see right through me. So I gave it to my sister Anita, and she recorded it – her version was like a folk song, like bells ringing in the mountains. When John heard it, he said, 'I want to do that song.'"

Thus did their love story begin. Eventually freed of their entanglements, they married in 1968, and Carter determined to save Cash from himself. "When we fell in love, she took it upon herself to be responsible for me staying alive," Cash said in 2000. "I didn't think I was killing myself, but you're on a suicide track when you're doing what I was doing. Amphetamines and alcohol will make you crazy, boy! She'd take my drugs and throw them away, and we'd have a big fight over it. I'd get some more, and she'd do it again . . . . She fought me with everything she had."

Cash would occasionally backslide in his struggle to stay clean – he did a stint at the Betty Ford clinic in the mid-Eighties – but June never wavered. She reinvigorated his Christian faith and settled him down, and as a result his career once again began to soar. Two live albums, At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969), renewed interest in his music; the San Quentin album launched the biggest hit of his career, "A Boy Named Sue." At the same time, the hippie counterculture discovered country music, and Cash was uniquely positioned to benefit from the attention. Having championed Bob Dylan since the early Sixties, he wrote Grammy-winning liner notes for Dylan's 1969 album Nashville Skyline and performed an affecting duet with him on the album's opening track, "Girl From the North Country." His own weekly variety show, The Johnny Cash Show, went on the air on ABC in June 1969 and ran for two years, during which time the singer hosted guests such as Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Merle Haggard, all of whom were far from network fare at the time.

But the hits abruptly stopped coming in 1970, and his show was canceled the following year. For two long decades, he would continue to record to no particular effect, and he toured constantly with June and other members of the Carter Family. In 1985 he formed the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson; they made four albums and occasionally toured. But by the early Nineties, Cash had become one of those veteran artists who is revered but not taken seriously.

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