"The Man in Black"—as Johnny Cash (born 1932) has long been known—has been one of the most influential figures in country music since the 1950s. In the 1990s he broke through to a younger, more alternative audience, performing songs by Soundgarden, Beck, and others.
He has also reached a substantial audience of rock fans, thanks to his outlaw persona, deep, authoritative voice, and dark songs like "Folsom Prison Blues." After enjoying a string of hits in the 1950s and even greater success in the late 1960s, when he was briefly the best-selling recording artist in the world, he saw his edgy, close-to-the-bone style go out of fashion. Even as his 1980s work was neglected, however, he appeared before adoring throngs worldwide. In 1994, well past his sixtieth birthday, he came roaring back with a sparsely recorded album that ranked among his best work and earned him a Grammy Award. "Can you name anyone in this day and age who is as cool as Johnny Cash?" asked Rolling Stone rhetorically. "No, you can't."
J. R. Cash was born into an impoverished Arkansas family in 1932 and grew up working in the cotton fields. His Baptist upbringing meant that the music he heard was almost entirely religious, and the hymns sung by country greats like the Carter Family and Ernest Tubb reached him on the radio and made an indelible impression. "From the time I was a little boy," he recollected to Steve Pond in a 1992 Rolling Stone interview, "I never had any doubt that I was gonna be singing on the radio." His brother Roy formed a band when he was young, increasing John's determination to do the same one day.
Cash had no idea, though, what path would lead him to his destiny. He held a few odd jobs after graduating from Dyess High School in 1950, but eventually opted for a four-year stay in the Air Force. Stationed in Germany, he endured what he would later describe as a lonely, miserable period. Fortunately, he learned to play the guitar and began turning the poetry he'd been writing into song lyrics. After seeing a powerful film about Folsom Prison, he sat down to write what would become one of his signature songs—"Folsom Prison Blues." His empathy for prisoners and other marginalized people would consistently inform his work. With his powerful position in a generally conservative musical world, he also championed Native American rights and other social ills.
Cash left the military in 1954 and married Vivian Liberto, whom he met before joining the air force; they had corresponded throughout his tour of duty. The two lived in Memphis, Tennessee, and he earned a meager living selling appliances. "I was the worst salesman in the world," Cash confided to Pond. Nonetheless, he summoned the passion to sell himself as a singer, playing with a gospel group and canvassing radio stations for chances to perform on the air.
Plays with Presley
Eventually Cash was granted an audience with trail-blazing producer Sam Phillips, at whose Sun Studios the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and others made recordings that would help change the course of popular music. Phillips was a hard sell, but Cash won the opportunity to record his first single; "Cry, Cry, Cry" became a number 14 hit in 1955, and Cash's group played some local gigs with Presley. Pond describes Cash's early records as "stark, unsettling and totally original. The instrumentation was spare, almost rudimentary" featuring bass and lead guitar supplied by his Tennessee Two and Cash's rhythm guitar, which had "a piece of paper stuck underneath the top frets to give it a scratchy sound."
In 1956 Cash left his sales job and recorded the hits "Folsom Prison Blues"—containing the legendary and much-quoted lyric "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"—and "I Walk the Line." The next year saw the release of the one album released by Sun before his departure from the label, Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar. He and the Tennessee Two left the label after a string of hits and signed with CBS/Columbia Records in 1958. Singles he recorded on Sun at Phillips's insistence just before his contract lapsed continued to chart for years afterward, much to Cash's chagrin. Yet he charted on CBS as well with a bevy of singles and such albums as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Ring of Fire.
In the midst of his success, however, Cash grew apart from Vivian and their children. He grew dependent on drink and drugs and became increasingly dissolute. Such misery no doubt contributed force to such work as 1963's "Ring of Fire," which was co-written by June Carter, who also performed on the track. Cash and Carter—of the famed Carter family—became increasingly close, both professionally and personally. His marriage collapsed in 1966 and he nearly died of an overdose. Cash has long attributed his subsequent rehabilitation to two factors: Carter and God. He and Carter wed in 1968 and later had a son, John.
In any event, Cash expanded his repertoire as the 1960s unfolded, incorporating folk music and protest themes. He recorded songs by folk-rock avatar Bob Dylan and up-and-comers like Kris Kristofferson, but by the end of the decade, driven perhaps by his generally out-of-control life, his hits came largely from novelty songs like Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." Even so, by 1969 Cash was the best-selling recording artist alive, outselling even rock legends The Beatles. That year saw him win two Grammy Awards for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a live album for a worshipful audience of prisoners that led, perhaps inevitably, to Johnny Cash at San Quentin. From 1969 to 1971 he hosted a smash variety program for television, The Johnny Cash Show.
The 1970s saw more career triumphs, notably a Grammy-winning duet with Carter on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," a command performance for President Richard Nixon, acting roles in film and on television, a best-selling autobiography, and several more hit albums, including Man in Black, the title of which would become his permanent show business moniker. While this label has been associated with his "outlaw" image, he and his bandmates originally wore black because they had nothing else that matched; besides, as Cash informed Entertainment Weekly, "black is better for church."
In 1980 Cash was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. He had become a music hero worldwide, appearing in eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet empire and praising those who agitated for democracy. Yet during the 1980s, Cash became less and less of a priority for his record label; country music had come to be dominated by younger, pop-inclined artists who favored slick production. He continued to struggle with drugs, eventually checking into the Betty Ford clinic. There, he has said, he experienced a religious epiphany.
Cash wrote a novel, Man in White, about the life of the apostle Paul, and continued indulging his eclectic musical tastes, recording songs by mavericks like Elvis Costello. Alongside Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, he participated in a collaborative album, The Highwayman; he also joined Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and country-rock giant Roy Orbison for a reunion recording called Class of '55 (Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming), which enjoyed solid sales. A daughter by his first marriage, Rosanne, became a country star in her own right; Johnny Cash, himself, even as his albums sold poorly, was firmly established as a living legend of country music and a profound influence on rock and roll. In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and 1993 saw him contribute a vocal performance to Zooropa, by rock superstars U2.
Yet Cash tired of record-business priorities. "I kept hearing about demographics [market studies of consumers] until it was coming out my ears," the singer told Christopher John Farley of Newsweek. The first label representative who seemed to understand him after this bitter experience was, ironically enough, best known for his work with hardcore rap, metal, and alternative acts. Rick Rubin had founded his own label, first called Def American and later changed to American Recordings, to support acts he believed in. Though not intimately acquainted with Cash's work, he admired the singer's artistic persona. "I don't see him as a country act," Rubin told Farley. "I would say he embodies rock 'n' roll. He's an outlaw figure, and that is the essence of what rock 'n' roll is."
Rubin's appeal to Cash lay in his idea for a record. After seeing one of the country legend's performances, the producer "said he'd love to hear just me and my guitar," Cash told Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn. These were the words the veteran artist had waited decades to hear; he had suggested such a minimal approach many times to country producers, only to have it vetoed immediately on commercial grounds. Rubin simply set up a tape machine in his Hollywood living room and allowed Cash to do what he does best.
Rubin "was a lot like Sam [Phillips], actually," Cash ventured to Hilburn. "We talked a lot about the approach we were going to take, and he said, 'You know, we are not going to think about time or money. I want you to come out as much as you can." Without such constraints—which had clipped Cash's wings in his Nashville years—he was free to experiment with a wide range of material. Recording over 70 songs, mostly at Rubin's house but also at his own cabin in Tennessee and at the trendy Los Angeles nightspot The Viper Room, Cash had a valedictory experience. He later told Time' s Farley that the work was his "dream album."
The material was culled to 13 tracks, including traditional songs, some Cash originals, and compositions by such diverse modern songwriters as Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, and Loudon Wainright III. The leadoff track, "Delia's Gone," grimly describes the murder of a faithless woman; Rubin seemed to invite comparisons between Cash and the controversial metal and rap acts on his label. Titled American Recordings, the album was released in 1994; Johnny Cash was 62 years old. The liner notes contained testimonials from both Rubin and Cash. "I think we made a brutally honest record," the producer declared. "Working with Rick," Cash averred, "all the experimenting, kinda spread me out and expanded my range of material. This is the best I can do as an artist, as a solo artist, this is it."
Critics seemed to agree. Karen Schoemer of Mirabella praised it as "a daring, deceptively simple album" that "operates on a mythic scale, which suits someone who's always been larger than life. What is breathtaking is Cash's ability to analyze his aging self, and the failures, weaknesses, strengths and wisdoms that time bestows." Village Voice critic Doug Simmons praised it as "fiercely intimate," while Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis called it "unquestionably one of his best albums," one which "will earn him a time of well-deserved distinction in which his work will reach an eager new audience."
While American Recordings didn't take the charts by storm, it restored Johnny Cash's sense of mission. It also earned him a 1995 Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album. He played a sold-out engagement in Los Angeles just before his nomination, before an audience studded with such music stars as Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, and Dwight Yoakam. And in September of 1996 he played a set at the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan, previewing songs from his album Unchained as well as performing cover versions from younger artists such as Beck and Soundgarden.
About the prospect of an "eager new audience" Cash himself—who seriously considered playing at the alternative-rock festival known as Lollapalooza before declining the offer—was philosophical. "I no longer have a grandiose attitude about my music being a powerful force for change," he told Entertainment Weekly. Even so, he allowed, "I think [today's youth] sees the hypocrisy in government, the rotten core of social ills and poverty and prejudice, and I'm not afraid to say that's where the trouble is. A lot of people my age are." One thing remained constant, as he told Rolling Stone: "I feel like if I can just go onstage with my guitar and sing my songs, I can't do no wrong no matter where I am."
Further Reading on Johnny Cash
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 1994, pp. 57-67.
Hits, May 2, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1994, pp. F1, F5.
Mirabella, July 1994.
People, May 16, 1994.
Rolling Stone, December 10, 1992, pp. 118-25, 201; May 5, 1994, p. 14; May 19, 1994, pp. 97-98; June 30, 1994, p. 35.
Time, May 9, 1994, pp. 72-74.
Village Voice, May 18, 1994.