JOHNNY CASH – February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003 (71)
- One of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold over 90 million records.
- Cash embraced country, rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honor of being inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
- Born in Arkansas to poor cotton farmers.
- He spent four years in the United States Air Force.
- He rose to fame in the country music scene in Memphis.
- Cash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice.
- The most distinctive sound of his Tennessee Three backing band was characterized by guitarist Luther Perkins’ muted picking, in a consistent, train-like, chugging rhythm, on a Fender Esquire electric guitar.
- Luther Perkins (no relation to guitarist, Carl Perkins) died from injuries sustained in a house fire, August 1968.
- Bob Wooten (b. 1942) joined Cash’s band a only a month later, five months before the recording of Cash’s most famous album, “At San Quentin.” Wooten played in the band until Cash’s retirement from live performing in 1997.
1. An impromptu meeting of legendary Rockabilly/Country artists! Johnny had made two recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis in 1955, and they were both big hits. One day, the following year, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording a session at Sun. Johnny Cash happened to be there the same day. Then, Elvis Presley stopped in for a visit. The four of them started a jam session, playing mostly gospel songs, because those were the tunes all of them would already know by heart. Sam Phillips had the tape recorder running and had enough material for a full-length LP, called the Million Dollar Quartet. RCA eventually released the album in 1990.
2. Cash’s first single (1955) with Sun Records was “Cry, Cry Cry,” which Johnny wrote.
3. “I Walk The Line.” A very early hit (1956), it was Cash’s first single to rise to #1, and it remained one of his most popular songs. What does “walk the line” mean to you? He’s speaking to a partner, saying “I find it very easy to be true,” but he finds himself “alone most every night.” What is the situation he might be describing?
4. “Ring of Fire” (1963) was an early single, and his sixth #1 on the Country charts. It’s a love song, but the imagery is distinctive, comparing love to falling not directly into a fire, but into a ring of fire, where he’s surrounded by flames growing higher. The metaphor is claustrophobic, torturing and threatening. It doesn’t make love look very appealing!
5. “Folsom Prison Blues” (1968) was an enormous hit from the live album, At Folsom Prison. Cash had actually written the song back in 1953, and recorded it the first time in 1955. Cash had had some run ins with the law by this time, having been arrested seven times, but he had only ever spent one night in jail. The Washington Post ran a fascinating article about this concert two years ago, it gives all the background you need to know.
6. Bob Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, surprised many fans and critics. Released in a year full of protest and increasing public violence, his fans would have expected more of the pointed social commentary they were used to, but the album showed Dylan more as a mellow, Country music stylist. The very first track is a duo of Dylan with Johnny Cash:
7. From June 1969 to March 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, suitably titled, The Johnny Cash Show. Around these years, Cash probably had his greatest visibility on mainstream media. His t.v. show ran weekly for over a year and a half. If you listened to AM radio at this time, you would hear Johnny Cash songs mixed in among hits by The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Jefferson Airplane, etc. At this time, Cash began to consistently wear all black attire for public appearances. This was in stark contrast to other Country artists who normally performed in flashy, rhinestone studded jackets and cowboy boots. He did this, as he said, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”
8. In 1976, Cash had his last song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, a novelty song about a guy working in a Cadillac assembly plant, who decides to steal one of the vehicles, but has to smuggle it out one piece at a time so he can eventually reassemble it at home.
Through the rest of the 70’s, the 80’s, and into the 90’s, Cash’s career slumped into a slow decline. Neglected by the Country music fans of his generation, he began to be recognized by a new wave of fans many years later. In 1994, he recorded an album for Rick Rubin, a producer who had made a name for himself in the Rap, and Hard Rock genres. Rubin was convinced that Cash was a national treasure, and felt the best way to reintroduce him was to record him in his living room, accompanied only by acoustic guitar. Cash continued to work with Rubin, and his new albums began to win a number of Grammy awards, and earned Cash appearances at major music festivals around the world. One of Rubin’s strategies was to have Cash record covers of songs by unlikely (at first glance) sources, such as Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, and Depeche Mode. Rubin’s hunch paid off, and Cash’s career was revitalized with the success and acclaim that had evaded him for two decades.
Let’s listen to a few of Cash’s later recordings. First, the original, then the Johnny Cash version. What do you think?
What do you think made Johnny Cash such a distinctive musician? How was he able to appeal to fans outside of the Country music genre? Can you think of any other musicians whose careers evolved in a comparable way? Leave comments! Thank you!
NEXT MONTH’S LISTENING PARTY: The Girl Groups. The Shirelles reached the Top 40 with “Tonight’s the Night,” and in 1961 they became the first girl group to reach number one with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Many “Girl Groups” followed over the next few years, before they faded away during the British Invasion, but the sound and style has outlived the hits, influencing musicians from the 60’s to the present day.