When Johnny Cash died in September 2003, the world mourned the passing of a country icon, but it wasn’t just country music that lost a legend. Cash was a major influence on music in almost every genre, and some of the most well-known musicians of our time cite his influence on their own work.
J.R. Cash was born in 1932 in Arkansas, one of seven children. It was a constant struggle to make ends meet, and everyone in the family worked – Cash was in the cotton fields by the time he was five. At the beginning of the Korean War, J.R. enlisted in the Air Force, and changed his name to John. It was while he was in the service that he bought his first guitar and taught himself to play. He also began writing songs, including the legendary “Folsom Prison Blues.”
By 1954, Cash was out of the Air Force, married, living in Memphis and studying to be a radio announcer. He also began playing country music with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Cash managed to land an audition with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, but almost blew it by positioning himself as a gospel singer. Phillips was looking for something more commercial, and is said to have told Cash “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”
Cash did, and he soon found himself with his first hit. “Cry Cry Cry” entered the country charts at number 14. “Folsom Prison Blues” hit the country Top Five in 1956, and “I Walk the Line” followed, staying at number one for six weeks as well as crossing over into the pop Top 20.
Cash’s hot streak continued in 1957. He became the first artist to release a full-length album on Sun Records (ahead of Elvis Presley). He also made his Grand Ole Opry debut, which earned him the nickname “Man in Black.” At a time when flashy rhinestones and bright colors were practically mandatory apparel, Cash appeared in a simple black suit. The image was that of a man intent on going his own way, but Cash later admitted that rebellion had nothing to do with it – the only clothes that he and his band could wear that matched were their black suits.
Cash’s sound was stripped down to the basics, and relied largely on his guitar and his distinctive gravelly baritone voice. His music was compelling in its emotional honesty and its ability to tell a story. These elements could later be seen in many of the great folk singers and songwriters, including Bob Dylan. In fact, Cash was one of the first to record Dylan’s songs, and Dylan is one of many musicians that have cited Cash as a major influence.
Cash’s hard-living style can also be seen in generations of rockers. In the late 1950’s, Cash began taking amphetamines in an effort to keep up his maniacal schedule – nearly 300 shows a year. His ‘little helpers’ quickly grew into a raging addiction, and Cash began finding himself in trouble with the law. In 1965, he started a forest fire after driving a tractor into the lake behind his home. The same year, he was arrested in Texas, attempting to smuggle amphetamines from Mexico. Because of his antics, the Grand Ole Opry refused to allow him to perform, and Cash further cemented his outlaw image when he kicked out the stage footlights.
Record sales over the years had their ups and downs, not surprising when you consider that Cash’s career spanned 50 years. He hit a low point during the 1960’s, when he seemed to be more interested in liquor and drugs than music. His marriage to June Carter proved to be a turning point. He cleaned up, re-discovered his religious faith, and found himself back on track. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Cash continued recording, and while country radio began shunning classics like Cash in favor of more contemporary artists, he remained a popular concert draw.
In 1980, Cash became the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed in 1992.
In 1993, Cash signed with American Records. His first album, produced by Rick Rubin, revived his career critically, and brought him to the attention of a younger, more rock-oriented audience. On his series of “American Recordings” albums, Cash covered modern artists as varied as Depeche Mode, U2, and Cave. But probably the most amazing song was “Hurt,” a cover of Trent Reznor’s song with Nine Inch Nails. In 2002, the video was nominated for 6 MTV awards, where it won for cinematography.
“To hear that Johnny was interested in doing my song was a defining moment in my life’s work,” Reznor told The Chicago Tribune after Cash’s death. “To hear the result really reminded me how beautiful, touching and powerful music can be. The world has truly lost one of the greats.”
In an interview on 60 Minutes the year before his death, Cash was asked about his legacy. Cash said, “I’d like to be remembered as a man faithful to his music, to his fans and to his family.”