Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CASH, Johnny

(b 26 February 1932, Kingsland AR; d 11-12 September 2003, Nashville) Guitarist, singer, songwriter; giant of country music. Born to cotton-farming parents during the Great Depression; moved to Detroit '50, worked in car factory, swept floors. After four years in the USAF stationed in Germany he began writing songs and playing guitar. To Memphis on discharge; signed to Sun Records '55 in the heyday of rockabilly. His early country hits included his own 'Cry, Cry, Cry', 'Folsom Prison Blues'; 'I Walk The Line' crossed over to the pop chart '56. The distinctive sound of Sam Phillips's studio, Cash's sepulchral voice and the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins's electric guitar, Marshall Grant on bass: b 5 May 1928 Bryson City NC; d 7 August 2011, Jonesboro AR) made the act unique. Fooling around in the studio, Cash sang with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley the old gospel songs they'd all grown up with, the result later bootlegged as The Million Dollar Quartet. Drummer W.S. Holland was added '58 making the Tennessee Three. They stayed for decades; Grant, who was teetotal and a non-smoker, looked after Cash and his demons during his worst years.

Cash's version of Jack Clement's 'Ballad Of A Teenage Queen' was his first country no. 1 (no. 14 pop), 'Guess Things Happen That Way' the next (no. 11 pop), both '58. Altogether he had 58 top 40 country hits in 25 years, eleven pop. Other country no. 1 entries: 'Don't Take Your Guns To Town' '59 (no. 32 pop), 'Ring Of Fire' '63 (no. 17 pop), 'Understand Your Man' '64 (no. 35 pop), remake of 'Folsom Prison', 'Daddy Sang Bass' both '68, 'A Boy Named Sue' '69 (no. 2 pop; written by Shel Silverstein), 'Sunday Morning Coming Down', 'Flesh And Blood' both '70. He joined Grand Ole Opry '57 and was playing 300 gigs a year early '60s, relying on drugs to keep going. The Sun Years was a three-CD set on Charly UK.

He went to Columbia '58 as the golden era at Sun drew to a close and had country hits on both labels '57-61 as Sun scraped the vault for unissued sides; Sun reissues made the country charts again '69-70. Columbia concept LPs were successful: Ride This Train '60 was a history of USA in train songs; Bitter Tears '64 was subtitled Ballads Of The American Indian; True West '65, From Sea To Shining Sea '68 were others; Trains And Rivers '71 was a Sun compilation. Friendship with Bob Dylan led to a country hit with 'It Ain't Me, Babe' '64 and a duet on 'Girl From The North Country' on Dylan's Nashville Skyline '69 (he also wrote Dylan's sleeve note; other duets were never released). He encouraged younger writers, e.g. Peter Lafarge, Kris Kristofferson. Marriage to June Carter '68 brought stability, helped him kick his pill addiction; he later recovered the Christianity of his youth and worked for evangelist Billy Graham. His brother Tommy Cash (b 5 April 1940, Dyess AR) wrote 'You Don't Hear' for Kitty Wells (top five country hit '65) and had his own hits late '60s-early '70s.

Duets with June resulted in five top 40 hits in country chart, including 'Jackson' '67, 'If I Were A Carpenter' '70, both no. 2; Johnny and June had a highly rated TV show late '60s-70s, other members of the Carter family also appeared. His concert LP Johnny Cash At San Quentin '69 was also a TV documentary, catching the enthusiasm of the captive audience, including 'Wanted' and 'San Quentin' as well as 'A Boy Named Sue'. Called 'The Man In Black' after his stage costume and a '71 hit, he became country music's ambassador abroad, touring heavily with June and Perkins; he won countless Grammys and became a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He made films including A Gunfight '70 with Kirk Douglas, and published two memoirs. His honesty made the somewhat mawkish 'A Thing Called Love' a big '72 hit; jokey 'One Piece At A Time' crossed over to pop top 40 '76. Nick Lowe, then married to June's daughter Carlene, produced 'Without Love' on an excellent LP Rockabilly Blues '80, which also included Steve Goodman's '20th Century Is Almost Over' and Cash's own 'Rockabilly Blues (Texas 1955)'. A narrative title track from The Baron '81 saw some action as a single; he made TV movie The Baron And The Kid '84. Johnny 99 '83 included two songs from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, the title song and 'Highway Patrolman' both ideally suited. He guested with Emmylou Harris and on Paul Kennerley's concept album The Legend Of Jesse James '80, etc. Cash, Lewis and Perkins made Survivors '81, their first reunion in over 20 years; they re-created the 'million-dollar quartet' with Roy Orbison on Class Of '55 '85 (recorded at the old Sun studio, using mobile equipment), including guest spots from Dave Edmunds, John Fogerty, the Judds, Rick Nelson (his last session); The Highwayman '85 with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kristofferson, had a no. 1 country single in the title track; Heroes '86 with Jennings included a cover of Dylan's 'One Too Many Mornings'.

Columbia lost points when it dropped Cash after 28 years; Dwight Yoakam's comment was 'He paid for their [Nashville] building.' As Columbia milked its Cash vault, a disappointing period on Mercury included Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town '87, produced by Clement, with Jennings and the Carter girls, including single/video 'The Night Hank Williams Came To Town'; Water From The Wells Of Home '88, Boom Chicka Boom '89, Classic Cash '89 (remakes of hits) and The Mystery Of Life '91. During this period he was dogged by ill health, including heart surgery; then came one of the best albums of his career, on Rick Rubin's American label. Rubin, who has produced the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Cult, talked Cash into going back to basics, and American Recordings '94 had just Cash and his acoustic guitar, singing songs by Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen and others as well as his own; the first line on the album was 'If I hadn't shot poor Delia I'd have had her for my wife', and Cash was doing what he does best, telling us about the darkness. He also won an all-new young audience at the Glastonbury Festival '94, something else he had always done well. Unchained '96 had Tom Petty and Mick Fleetwood as guests, but songs like 'Mean Eyed Cat' and 'Rowboat' still marked out Cash territory. Further albums with Rubin were American III: Solitary Man 2000 and American IV: The Man Comes Around 2003. He announced '97 he was suffering from a form of Parkinson's called Shy-Dager syndrome or Multiple System Atrophy, but that diagnosis was changed to autonomic neuropathy, a condition that left him prey to pneumonia, from which he suffered more than once. He died at about midnight of complications from diabetes, just a few months after his beloved June passed away; see also the entry for the Carter Family.