Johnny Cash, whose five-decade career defined and refined American music, died early this morning of complications from diabetes; he was seventy-one.
Earlier this week, Cash had been released from a Nashville hospital after a two-week stay for pancreatitis. The singer had been in ill health for the past six years. He was initially diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a type of Parkinson’s Disease, but subsequent diagnosis found him to have autonomic neuropathy, which left him susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia.
Cash handled his illness with the legendary resilience that had made him a larger than life character throughout his career. Despite the multiple visits to the hospital, he remained defiantly prolific, recording dozens of songs over the past few years, fifteen of which ended up on his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, and some of which might be turned into a posthumous fifth American Recordings album.
The series of recordings Cash made with producer Rick Rubin created the most unlikely of country music comebacks, as the genre often leaves its legends out in the cold when their expiration date is perceived to have passed. In 1993, Rubin contacted the label-less Cash, hoping to record him for his American label. When Cash asked Rubin what sort of album he wanted to make, the producer told him he just wanted to record an essence-of-Johnny Cash album. Cash likened the experience to his very first recording sessions with legendary producer and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.
After introducing himself to Phillips in 1955, Cash played an original, “Hey Porter,” which piqued the producer’s curiosity. Cash said that Phillips sent him home to come up with a sad song. The aspiring songwriter took Phillips’ direction literally and inked “Cry, Cry, Cry,” a triple weeper, which was recorded in May and issued with “Porter.” Backed by the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant), Cash was forging his own corner of rockabilly that utilized his earthy baritone and the trio’s staccato boom-chaka-boom rhythm. A second session a month later yielded “Folsom Prison Blues,” which made its way to the country charts, and a legend was born.
The influence of Cash’s Arkansas upbringing can’t be underestimated in his music and career. Born J.R. Cash in Cleveland County on February 26, 1932, Cash eventually took on the name John, which stuck through childhood (Phillips, the masterful marketer, is oft credited with extending it to Johnny). When Cash was still a tot, his father took advantage of an FDR program that allowed him to buy several acres of land in Dyess, Arkansas, near the Mississippi River, in the northeast part of the state. The locale provided the four elements that perhaps most defined Cash’s early career: God, the mighty Mississippi, cotton fields and the radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, in no specific order.
Cash graduated from Dyess High School in 1950 before taking a string of short-term jobs, including stints at an auto factory in Detroit, a run with the Air Force in Germany (where he first began to perform music) and selling vacuum cleaners in Memphis. His brother introduced him to a pair of mechanics who played a bit, Perkins and Grant, and the three began to take the odd gig, often dressed in black. The look was striking and, more importantly, practical, as they couldn’t afford a more elaborate get-up.
Upon their intersection with Phillips and Sun, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two began to put their stamp onto Cash’s original songs pulled from the first two decades of his life, from the Lord (Cash oft recorded the traditional hymns from his youth like “Where You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” to the nearby Mississippi (“Big River,” “Three Feet High and Rising”) to the family spread (“Pickin’ Time”) to his Ol’ Opry favorites (“Wreck of the Old ’97”).
Cash also defined the Man in Black persona during this time, a combination of outlaw mystique, spiritual humbleness and iconic individualism. Cash’s aura was spoken for in proudly defiant songs like “I Walk the Line” (his first hit on the pop charts, reaching Number Seventeen in 1956) as well as the stark “Folsom Prison Blues,” which featured the line that became a murderous mantra, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” And despite a larger-than-life voice and build, he played everyman with his basic introduction, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” his outspoken support of Native Americans and Vietnam vets, and his unquestionable patriotism.
After “I Walk the Line,” he charted three more pop hits for Sun in 1958 — “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (Number Fourteen), “Guess Things Happen That Way” (Number Eleven) and “The Ways of a Woman in Love” (Number Twenty-four) — before darting for a major label, Columbia, where he would record into the Eighties.
Cash’s run for the label from the late Fifties to the early Seventies was prolific and profitable, with a string of pop hits, including “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” a live version of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ring of Fire.” The last two tell much of Cash’s story during the era. “Ring of Fire” was co-written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. Carter, the daughter of country music matriarch Maybelle Carter, had been touring with Cash with the legendary Carter Family when she and the singer, both married at the time, fell for each other. According to lore, Cash had met Carter years before and promised that one day he’d marry her. Able to tap into the song’s verisimilitude as ably as its writer, Cash scored a Number Seventeen hit with “Ring of Fire” in 1963 . . . five years before they actually married. Carter, who began to perform and record regularly with her husband as June Carter Cash, is also largely credited with saving his life, flushing pills during his addiction-riddled years in the Sixties and Seventies. “In his wilder days, you couldn’t settle him down,” fellow wild child Waylon Jennings said just before his death in 2002. “I remember once he wanted to play Jimmie Rodgers in a movie. We used to live together, and he’d practice in front of me, acting like Jimmie Rodgers. Neither of us had any idea what Jimmie Rodgers acted like.”
As for “A Boy Named Sue,” Cash never quit writing his own material, but by the mid-Sixties, he became a songwriters’ champion, channeling songs by writers he admired through his unmistakable voice. Among them were “Sue”‘s writer, illustrator/songwriter/humorist Shel Silverstein and Kris Kristofferson, who legend has it landed a helicopter in Cash’s yard in an attempt to pitch him songs. Cash scored a minor pop hit (and a country chart topper) in 1970 with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” He was also a friend and champion of Bob Dylan, bringing the singer-songwriter to the Nashville set. He sang on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and hosted the him on the debut episode of his own primetime television revue. The hunter/gatherer aspect of Cash’s creativity would carry on through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. He inhabited Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” in 1983, a practice of making others’ songs his own that would serve him well a decade later.
Cash and Columbia’s relationship came to an end in the Eighties, and things were quiet until Rubin contacted him. For 1994’s American Recordings Cash wrapped his voice around songs by sources as unlikely as Glen Danzig (“Thirteen”) and others that made more cosmic sense like Tom Waits (“Down There By the Train”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird on a Wire”) and Nick Lowe (“The Beast in Me”). The album was packaged in stark black and white and instantly introduced Cash to a group of listeners that had grown up in the Eighties, removed from his legacy. A second American album, Unchained, was issued two years later with Cash backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In addition to classic country cuts like “Sea of Heartbreak,” “I Never Picked Cotton” (more cotton, forty years after leaving Dyess) and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Cash recorded Beck’s “Rowboat” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.”
It was the perfect marriage. Cash sounded reinvigorated singing the newer material (as well as contributing the occasional original like the staggeringly layered “When the Man Comes Around” this year) and potential contributors were tripping over themselves to have their songs recorded. “When Cash is looking for songs, word gets out on the writing grapevine,” Joe Strummer said prior to his death last December. “There’s scurrying, though you kind of just kind of send it in. You don’t really get to go, ‘Look Mr. Cash!'”
Recalls Nick Cave, who had his “The Mercy Seat” covered on American III: Solitary Man three years ago: “Rick Rubin called up and said, ‘You wanna come down and sing with Johnny Cash?’ Um, yeah, OK . . . I’ll try to make the time, y’know. I was very flattered when he sang my song, and singing with him was amazing. There’s an encyclopedia of all that stuff in his head.”
The most recent American record has sold better than its two predecessors, due in part to a striking video for Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” which spliced recent footage of the older Cash with cracked and dusty photos from his archives. The video was nominated for five MTV Video Music Awards last month, and was a sentimental (and artist) favorite, though it only won one award.
More than fifty songs have been issued on Cash’s four American records. More than 100 unreleased, including a song Strummer wrote for him, “The Road to Rock & Roll” (“He said it confused him,” Strummer said), many of which will be included on a multi-disc box set later this year.
Cash and Rubin had planned to cut fifty songs down to fifteen for American V, but the year had been tough for Cash. In addition to multiple hospitalizations, in May he lost his soul mate June. According to daughter Kathy, Cash was asked if he’d like to select a charity to have donations made in lieu of flowers. “No,” he said. “We give to charities all the time. June loved flowers. I want her to have lots of flowers.”
Cash was a member of both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. His original compositions have been covered countless times, recently on a pair of tribute albums. And his interpretations of others’ songs have changed the way they are heard. And his music and attitude have influenced five decades of artists, without lines drawn for genre. “He’s touched the real ones,” said Cash’s former guitarist and former son-in-law Marty Stuart, “the artists who are as timeless as he is. Those who have gotten in there and made the big book.”