Friday, February 16, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: Remembering The Man In Black (2003)

Johnny Cash
The Man In Black: Johnny Cash
In the early morning of September 12, 2003, the world of music lost a larger-than-life icon in Johnny Cash. Known the world over as the “Man In Black,” Cash, along with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan, was one of the four most important figures in American music during the last fifty years. Cash had been sick for a long time with various ailments, but he faced his illness with humor and determination and had continued to sing and work in the studio almost until the day that he died. The death of his beloved wife June Carter Cash back in May, however, was a blow that he could not recover from and it could be said that Cash died as much from a broken heart as he did his physical infirmities.

The first live concert that I ever saw was Johnny Cash. It was back in 1969 at the Gannon College auditorium in Erie, Pennsylvania with the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins opening the show. It was an eye-opening evening and was responsible for a lifelong infatuation with music. This was at the beginning of Cash’s mainstream fame. Sure, he had enjoyed dozens of successful records throughout the late ‘50s and early-to-mid-‘60s but it was his television show, running for two seasons from 1969 through 1971 that made Cash a household name.

Cash was born in rural Arkansas in the throes of the Great Depression. Inspired by the country songs he heard on the radio, Cash began singing and writing songs at the age of 12, but it wasn’t until he served in the Air Force during the Korean War that he taught himself to play guitar. After being discharged from the service, Cash married a woman from Texas and moved to Memphis, where he took a radio broadcast course on the GI Bill. At night Cash fronted a trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, playing country songs.

A 1955 audition with Sun Records brought the young Cash to the attention of Sam Phillips, famed producer and the man who discovered Elvis. Cash auditioned as a gospel singer and was rebuffed by Phillips, who told him to come back with something more commercial. Cash soon came back with “Hey Porter,” which, coupled with “Cry Cry Cry,” became Cash’s first country hit. For the next three years, Cash knocked down a number of hits for the Memphis label, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Give My Love To Rose.” Cash made his first appearance on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1957, dressed entirely in stark black at a time when rhinestones were the style in country music.

With another of his characteristic misjudgments, Phillips refused to allow Cash to record a gospel album and was unwilling to increase his royalty rates (keep in mind that Elvis was long gone from Sun by this time). Cash subsequently jumped to Columbia Records, where he enjoyed a long association and a string of hits that would stretch from the late-50s through the mid-70s, songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” However, the rigors of 300 nights a year on the road and Cash’s use of amphetamines eventually led to legal problems, health issues and erratic behavior that saw Cash get booted off the Opry stage and eventually led to his divorce from wife Vivian.   

It was June Carter, scion of country royalty the Carter Family, who came to Cash’s rescue. Introduced originally by Elvis Presley (Carter was also managed by Colonel Parker), June was married at the time to singer Carl Smith. Cash and Carter became good friends and when he moved to Nashville and Carter was divorced from Smith, she helped Cash kick his drug problem and introduced him to her Christian faith. The two were married in 1968 after Cash proposed on stage and the two were virtually inseparable ever since.

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
Also in 1968, Cash released what was to become his most popular album at the time, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, the album selling better than 500,000 copies (a lot in those days) and crossing over to the pop charts. A year later, Cash followed up with Johnny Cash At San Quentin, which yielded the hit single “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash sat in on Bob Dylan’s album Nashville Skyline and invited the singer/songwriter to appear on the first episode of his television show in 1969. During the next few years, Cash dabbled in movies, published an autobiography, and continued to score hits such as “One Piece At A Time” and “(Ghost) Riders In the Sky.” In 1980 Cash became the youngest member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame.

During the ‘80s, however, Cash’s star began to dim, his style of traditional country eclipsed by younger stars and gradually ignored by radio. A musical collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson titled The Highwaymen found mild success in 1985, though the album has since become considered a country classic. In 1986, Rick Blackburn of Columbia Records won the scorn of Cash fans across the planet when the label unceremoniously dumped the aging star from its roster. A brief association with Mercury Records produced little of value and in 1992, after almost 40 years of success, Cash found himself unable to get a record deal in Nashville.

Salvation came in the unlikely form of producer Rick Rubin. The founder of American Recordings, Rubin was best known for his work with rap and hard rock bands. However, he eagerly signed Cash to a deal in 1993, launching a career revival that has yet to end. Pairing Cash’s faltering baritone with a mix of contemporary songs and traditional favorites, often delivered with bleak acoustic instrumentation, the series of Rubin-produced albums earned Cash a young audience made up of rebellious punks, metalheads, and Goth kids who appreciated the singer’s passion and powerful delivery. The fourth collaboration between Rubin and Cash, titled American IV: The Man Comes Around, was released in 2002 to widespread critical acclaim. Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” propelled the album to nearly a million copies sold and several MTV Video Award nominations.     

A lot has been written about Cash in the days since his death, mostly focusing upon his success in country music or his relationship with June Carter. Most of those telling the stories, however, missed some of the subtleties about the man and artist. Cash was a great songwriter, his work championing the working man, the downtrodden and the needy. But he also recognized great songwriting, which led him to buck the Music Row establishment and record songs by rockers like Bob Dylan or struggling songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Cash was a great live performer, a charismatic and powerful presence who took total control of the stage. However, he wasn’t afraid to share his stardom to give a little rub to friends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, or the Statler Brothers. Cash is the only artist honored by inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

On the day of his death, the phone lines at Nashville’s talk radio stations lit up with people remembering the “Man In Black.” It seemed as if everybody in the Music City had a story to tell about Cash, every one without exception telling of the man’s great humor and kindness and humanity. Johnny Cash was a giant among men and even in death his legacy continues to inspire and comfort both those who knew him and those who knew his music… (View From The Hill, 2003)

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