Johnny Cash - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Johnny Cash was one of the biggest mavericks country music ever produced. Cash was Everyman, Everywhere, an instantly recognizable figure whether in Belfast, Jerusalem or Kingston. When you hear Johnny Cash sing a song, as his friend Merle Travis wrote, "it comes out just as clear as if he's standin' on the court house steps, pounding a hammer." His rise from dire poverty in Depression-era Arkansas to the very pinnacle of international fame was rocky, dark and often dangerous. He nearly killed himself with drugs, yet through a combination of unshakable spiritual faith and an illimitable artistic drive, Cash beat the devil and achieved immortality on a level shared only by the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.


            During his fifty plus year career, Cash sold well over 50 million records. For more than 35 years he annually placed at least two hits on the charts, but between 1958 and 1960, he scored 25, for a total of 130 on the Billboard country singles chart (only George Jones had more) and 48 on the Hot 100 (as many as the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys each had). He won more than 25 BMI awards, eleven Grammys and was inducted into both the Country Music and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame. In 1969, his Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Columbia) outsold the Beatles' White Album. To call Cash an influential artist barely hints at his reach, for instance, his song “I Walk the Line” was recorded by over 100 different artists. 


            Born in 1932 to a family of sharecroppers in Kingsland, Arkansas, he was raised in Dyess, a federal government relocation project that, if not for being his childhood home, wouldn't even be on any map today. Cash's childhood was a mixture of misfortune and tragedy, tempered by warm familial support and affection. The Mississippi river rose and flooded Dyess in 1937, terrifying the five year old, and at 12, his older brother Jack was pulled into the blades of a table saw as he cut fence posts-- the blade tore clear through the boy's ribs to his groin and he died eight days later. The family was so poor they were fortunate if they even had enough oil to light a lamp at night. Cash barely made passing grades, but never once missed a day od school. He grew up chopping cotton and listening, on a battery powered radio, to the WSM Grand Ole Opry and the Carter Family's XERA broadcasts. Another brother, Roy, led a band, the Delta Rhythm Ramblers, and until they disbanded during WWII, Cash never missed one of their performances. After graduating from high school and a brief stint as a factory worker in Detroit, Cash joined the US Air Force in 1951.


            While stationed in Germany, Cash composed “Folsom Prison Blues,” and within a few years of being discharged, he crossed the Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee and began playing music with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Just as Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis had, Cash began bugging Sun Records' president Sam Phillips for a chance to make records--except that Cash only wanted to cut gospel. Phillips asked for new material and Cash returned the next day with “Cry! Cry! Cry!.”


            Billed as Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two, the records started making noise and before long, "I Walk the Line" was topping the country and pop charts. By the time his first album was released, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957 Sun), Cash was a major country star. Cash's heavily rhythmic sound set him apart, but it was songwriting that really distinguished him. A master lyricist and interpretive entertainer, his songs were always laden with simple yet subtle symbology (“Give My Love to Rose,” where the homesick, dying protagonist is ironically found lying along a railroad track, or the subsonic, verse-linking hum of “I Walk the Line,” metaphysically representing the tightrope of monogamous faith).


            Cash toured extensively with the Sun stable of rockabilly insurgents--a troupe of wildly extreme performers all of whom were profoundly altering American music. Yet by 1958, Cash was increasingly restless, due as much to his own personality as to the  Dexedrine pills that everyone at Sun ate like popcorn. He had achieved all he could in the Southeast, including the conquest of the Grand Ole Opry (who were so eager to regularly feature Cash, they made him an informal cast member, one not bound by the regulation which forced other Opry stars to return for the Saturday night show 26 weeks a year, severely curtailing their road work). After he famously dragged the heavy WSM  mike stand's bottom over the stage lights, exploding all fifty-two of them (“the glass was popping into the faces of the people in the audience.” Cash said. “I was real upset about something, don't remember what--but amphetamines will help you find a reason quick”), Cash just split, moving, like Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills already had, to Los Angeles.


            Country music in Southern California was a far more loose and progressive than in Nashville, and out West, Cash just got bigger and bigger, selling even more records. Shortly after his arrival, Cash signed with Columbia Records, igniting a startlingly prolific run of 25 number one hits between 1958 and 1960. Also during this period he launched a series of concept albums, starting with Ride This Train (1960 Columbia) and ending with Ballads of the True West 2 (1965 Columbia).  These records wove traditional songs with narrative and sound effects, the very first ever attempted by a country artist. The most dramatic of these was Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964 Columbia), an album of songs by Native American songwriter Peter Lafarge that castigated the government's long years of social injustice to Native Americans. When radio balked at adding the single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Cash took out a full page ad in Billboard challenging them to play this true story of a Pima Indian war hero who died forgotten and humiliated. Cash not only had talent and determination, he had balls.


            But the amphetamines made everything uneven. Photo sessions for album covers were nightmarish--he looked more like a concentration camp inmate than a singing star. Yet throughout this period, Cash consistently recorded classic songs (“I Still Miss Someone,” “Understand Your Man,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Stripes”) and assembled a heavily booked road show of stellar talent. On tour, Cash and the Tennessee Two were at their wildest, indulging in insanely destructive pranks:  they'd paint every square inch and stick of furniture in their room black, and they released 300 baby chicks into the air conditioning vents at a Texas hotel in mid-summer.  The management discovered it a week later, when the stench was overwhelming and instituted a three year ban on accommodating any country performer. After the dissolution of his first marriage, he moved back to Nashville (rooming with Waylon Jennings), but trouble dogged him. There were several arrests, physical collapses and more than a few missed shows, until Cash and troupe member, June Carter, fell in love. Under her influence, he cleaned up, stopped the pill popping, and got back on his feet. They wed, and by 1969, he had the smash hit album, At Folsom Prison, number one singles like "Boy Named Sue," and his highly successful ABC television variety series, The Johnny Cash Show (by the time it hit the airwaves, even the Opry had invited him back).


            Cash consistently gravitated to the outlaw outskirts of country music. He was more comfortable with the unusual themes exemplified by Bitter Tears, and later emerged as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war and imprisonment of non-violent offenders with his song, "Man in Black." While he pointedly avoided the idiom's mainstays, rarely recording a drinking or cheating song and almost never featuring a steel guitar or fiddle, he nonetheless consistently emphasized country music's bedrock themes: family, fealty, and faith.  Cash rarely played uptown when he worked the country circuit. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, touring through Southern California, he'd play the high desert town of Lancaster, far more often than  he would anywhere in the city of  Los Angeles. 1985 would see Cash back on the charts and in the limelight again as part of country music's greatest super group- The Highwaymen, which also included Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennongs- resulting in a million selling number one country record, which produced two Top 20 hits- Jimmy Webb's masterful sequel to his most popular "Witchita Lineman," titled "Highwayman," and Guy Clark's brilliant "Desperados Waiting For A Train."  


            Although he had established his own unique musical realm, country music was changing. In Nashville, neither longevity nor greatness was a substitute for hit records and by 1987, once the Highwaymen success had played itself out, Columbia unceremoniously dropped Cash. He moved to Mercury Records, but failed to register with the record buying public. Cash seemed to be approaching the twilight of his career, until upstart rock producer, Rick Rubin, bought Cash's Mercury contract, signed the singer to a long-term deal and in 1994, released American Recordings (American). The solo album, just Cash and his guitar, was striking in its simplicity. A shrewd marketing blitz soon ensured that Cash was back on magazine covers coast to coast, and with Rubin, Cash continued to release album after critically acclaimed and Grammy winning album (Rubin had recorded a vast and still unknown number of songs with Cash, enabling him to release the posthumous 2006, American V: A Hundred Highways album).


            Frequently employing material and studio contributions from modern rock heavy hitters (U2, Depeche Mode), Rubin's manner of updating Cash was really only history repeating itself, in reverse. Cash, of course, had played the Newport Folk Festival at the folk revivals height, publicly welcomed Bob Dylan into his Nashville home in 1967 and regularly featured hippy rock stars like Neal Young and Credence Clearwater Revival on his ABC series.  But Rubin did succeed in re-introducing the singer to several generations largely unaware of Cash, upped Cash's prestige and kept him busier than ever. Cash recorded until his health no longer permitted, and rarely made any formal public appearances. After June Carter died in May 2003, Cash didn't last six months, leaving this world on September 12 of that year.  In 2005, the well-received, Oscar-winning film, Walk the Line, detailed Johnny Cash's early life and rise to fame.  It was produced by the only child of June Carter and Johnny Cash, John Carter Cash.

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