It was a natural fit. For all his Southern raising and lyrics about gunfighters, trains and prison, Cash was very much rock & roll. He represented the genre not only in his take-no-shit spirit — and his penchant for symbolic black clothing — but in a string of songs recorded at the birthplace of rock & roll, Sun Records. Among them: “I Walk the Line,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash performed the rockabilly rave-up “Big River,” another gem from those Sun sessions, at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction with help from some A-list guests. (Watch the performance, along with a portion of Cash’s speech, above.)
Keith Richards, John Fogerty, U2’s the Edge, Steve Cropper and even Carlos Santana all back up the Man in Black during the loose performance, as Little Richard claps along. Paul Shaffer, the ceremony’s longtime musical director calls out solos, pointing at Richards, then Fogerty, to add some flair to Cash’s rhythmic strumming. It nearly runs off the rails, but the honoree brings it all back together with one final chorus.
Prior to the performance, Cash expressed some dismay at his induction with the Class of 1992, which also included the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Yardbirds, Sam and Dave, and Booker T. and the MGs. “Maybe I was trying to make sure that I belong here tonight and make you see that I might possibly actually belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Cash said, clutching his trophy. “I’m extremely proud of it — and whether I belong or not, I’m going to show it off at home.”
Cash, 60 at the time, would dive headfirst into rock within the decade, recording songs by Glenn Danzig, Soundgarden and U2 for his American Recordings series. Arguably his most famous foray, however, was his solemn recitation of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in 2002, a song that served as a metaphor for Cash’s waning health. He would die the following year.