Johnny "J.R." Cash (February 26, 1932 - September 12, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor and, author, who was widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honor of multiple inductions in the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
Cash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice, the distinctive sound of his Tennessee Three backing band, a rebelliousness coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, free prison concerts, and a trademark look, which earned him the nickname "The Man in Black". He traditionally began his concerts with the simple "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", followed by his signature "Folsom Prison Blues".
Much of Cash's music echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption, especially in the later stages of his career. His best-known songs included "I Walk the Line", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Ring of Fire", "Get Rhythm" and "Man in Black". He also recorded humorous numbers like "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue"; a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called "Jackson" (followed by many further duets after their marriage); and railroad songs including "Hey, Porter" and "Rock Island Line". During the last stage of his career, Cash covered songs by several late 20th century rock artists, most notably "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails.
Early life and influences
Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, one of seven children born to Ray Cash (May 13, 1897, Kingsland, Arkansas - December 23, 1985, Hendersonville, Tennessee) and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers; March 13, 1904, Rison, Arkansas - March 11, 1991, Hendersonville, Tennessee). At birth, he was named J. R. Cash. When Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name.
The Cash children were: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J. R., Reba, Joanne, and Tommy. His younger brother, Tommy Cash, also became a successful country artist.
In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired him to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died on May 20, 1944, at age 15. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven.
Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When Cash was young, he had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone. In high school he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash For House Video
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code intercept operator for Soviet Army transmissions. It was there he created his first band, named "The Landsberg Barbarians". He was the first radio operator to pick up the news of the death of Joseph Stalin. He was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant on July 3, 1954, and returned to Texas.
Marriages and family
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio. They dated for three weeks, until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Liberto stated that Cash's drug and alcohol abuse as well as constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter led her to file for divorce in 1966.
Cash's career was handled by Saul Holiff, a London, Ontario, promoter and this relationship was the subject of Saul's son's biopic My Father and the Man in Black.
In 1968, 13 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June Carter, of the famed Carter Family, during a live performance in London, Ontario. The couple married on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child together, John Carter Cash, born March 3, 1970. Cash and Carter continued to work together and tour for 35 years until June's death in May 2003. Cash died four months later the same year.
Cash researched his heritage and found a mix of mostly Scottish and English ancestry. After meeting with the then-laird of Falkland, Fife, Major Michael Crichton-Stuart, Cash traced his family tree to 11th-century Fife. Cash Loch and other locations in Fife bear the name of his family.
In 1954, Cash and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him that he didn't record gospel music any longer. It was once rumored that Phillips told Cash to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell", although in a 2002 interview Cash denied that Phillips made any such comment. Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rockabilly style. In 1955, Cash made his first recordings at Sun, "Hey Porter" and "Cry! Cry! Cry!", which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived and have since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet. In Cash: the Autobiography, Cash wrote that he was the one farthest from the microphone and was singing in a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.
Cash's next record, "Folsom Prison Blues", made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" became No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. "Home of the Blues" followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun's most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label partly due to the fact that Phillips wasn't keen on Johnny recording gospel, and he was getting only a 3% royalty as opposed to the standard rate of 5%. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Lewis. The following year, Cash left the label to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" became one of his biggest hits and his second album for Columbia was a collection of gospel songs. However, Cash left behind a sufficient backlog of recordings with Sun that Phillips continued to release new singles and even albums featuring previously unreleased material until as late as 1964, placing Cash in the unusual position of having new releases out on two labels concurrently, with one 1960 release, a cover of "Oh Lonesome Me" making as high as No. 13 on the C&W charts. (Unlike when RCA Victor signed Presley and also bought his Sun Records masters, when Cash departed for Columbia, Phillips retained the rights to Cash's Sun masters; Columbia would eventually license some of these recordings for release on compilations after Cash's death.)
Early in his career, he was given the teasing nickname The Undertaker by fellow artists because of his habit of wearing black clothes - though he did so only because they were easier to keep looking clean on long tours.
In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle's daughters, Anita, June and Helen. June later recalled admiring him from afar during these tours. In the 1960s, he appeared on Pete Seeger's short lived television series Rainbow Quest. He also acted in and wrote and sang the opening theme for a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released as Door-to-door Maniac.
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his "nervousness" and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction. In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have "tried every drug there was to try."
Although he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash's frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of "Ring of Fire" was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. It was originally performed by June's sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had come to him in a dream. Vivian Liberto claimed a different version of the origins of "Ring of Fire". In her book, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, Liberto states that Cash gave Carter the credit for monetary reasons.
In June 1965, his camper caught fire during a fishing trip with his nephew Damon Fielder in Los Padres National Forest in California, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres and nearly killed Cash. Cash claimed that the fire was caused by sparks from a defective exhaust system on his camper, but Fielder thinks that Cash started a fire to stay warm and in his drugged condition failed to notice the fire getting out of control. When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said, "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it." The fire destroyed 508 acres (206 ha), burning the foliage off three mountains and driving off 49 of the refuge's 53 endangered condors. Cash was unrepentant and claimed, "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards." The federal government sued him and was awarded $125,172 ($939,914 in 2016 dollars). Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. He said he was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night. His most infamous run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested October 4 by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but found instead 688 Dexedrine capsules (amphetamines) and 475 Equanil (sedatives or tranquilizers) tablets that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because the pills were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.
Cash had also been arrested on May 11, 1965, in Starkville, Mississippi, for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. (This incident gave the spark for the song "Starkville City Jail", which he discussed on his live At San Quentin album.) In the mid-1960s, Cash released a number of concept albums, including Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965), an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at this point, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances. Nonetheless, he continued to find success and in 1967, Cash's duet with June Carter, "Jackson", won a Grammy Award.
Cash's final arrest was in 1967 in Walker County, Georgia, after being involved in a car accident while carrying a bag of prescription pills. Cash attempted to bribe a local deputy, who turned the money down, and then spent the night in a LaFayette, Georgia, jail. The singer was released after a long talk with Sheriff Ralph Jones, who warned him of his dangerous behavior and wasted potential. Cash credited that experience for saving his life, and he later came back to LaFayette to play a benefit concert that attracted 12,000 people (the city population was less than 9,000 at the time) and raised $75,000 for the high school. Reflecting on his past in a 1997 interview, Cash noted: "I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me."
Cash curtailed his use of drugs for several years in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and "just die", when he passed out on the floor. He reported being exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God's presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved in to Cash's mansion for a month to help him conquer his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to June at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada, on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, Kentucky. She had agreed to marry Cash after he had "cleaned up".
He rediscovered his Christian faith, taking an "altar call" in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Reverend Jimmie Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow. According to longtime friend Marshall Grant, Cash's 1968 rebirth experience did not result in his completely stopping use of amphetamines. However, beginning in 1970, Cash ended all drug use for a period of seven years. Grant claims that the birth of Cash's son, John Carter Cash, inspired Cash to end his dependence. Cash began using amphetamines again in 1977. By 1983, he was once again addicted, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California for rehabilitation. Cash managed to stay off drugs for several years, but by 1989, he was dependent again and entered Nashville's Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. In 1992, he entered the Loma Linda Behavioural Medicine Centre in Loma Linda, California, for his final rehabilitation (several months later, his son followed him into this facility for treatment).
Folsom and other prison concerts
Cash felt great compassion for prisoners. He began performing concerts at prisons starting in the late 1950s. His first prison concert was on January 1, 1959, at San Quentin State Prison. These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).
The Folsom Prison record was introduced by a rendition of his "Folsom Prison Blues", while the San Quentin record included the crossover hit single "A Boy Named Sue", a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty song that reached No. 1 on the country charts and No. 2 on the U.S. Top Ten pop charts. The AM versions of the latter contained profanities which were edited out. The modern CD versions are unedited and thus also longer than the original vinyl albums, though they retain the audience reaction overdubs of the originals.
Cash performed at the Österåker Prison in Sweden in 1972. The live album På Österåker ("At Österåker") was released in 1973. "San Quentin" was recorded with Cash replacing "San Quentin" with "Österåker". In 1976, a further prison concert, this time at Tennessee Prison, was videotaped for TV broadcast and received a belated CD release after Cash's death as A Concert Behind Prison Walls.
Activism for Native Americans
In 1965, Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, appeared on Pete Seeger's TV show, Rainbow Quest, on which Cash explained his start as an activist for Native Americans:
"In '57 I wrote a song called 'Old Apache Squaw' and then forgot the so-called Indian protest for a while, but nobody else seemed to speak up with any volume of voice."
Columbia, the label for which Cash was recording then, was opposed to putting the song on his next album, considering it "too radical for the public". Cash singing songs of Indian tragedy and settler violence went radically against the mainstream of country music in the 1950s, which was dominated by the image of the righteous cowboy who simply makes the native's soil his own.
In 1964, coming off of the chart success that his previous album "I Walk The Line" had been, he recorded the aforementioned album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
The album featured stories of a multitude of native peoples, mostly of their violent oppression by white settlers: The Pima ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes"), Navajo ("Navajo"), Apache ("Apache Tears"), Lakota ("Big Foot"), Seneca ("As Long as the Grass Shall Grow"), and Cherokee ("Talking Leaves"). Cash wrote three of the songs himself and one with the help of Johnny Horton, but the majority of the protest songs were written by folk artist Peter La Farge (son of activist and Pulitzer prizewinner Oliver La Farge), whom Cash met in New York in the 1960s and whom he admired for his activism. The album's single, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", was neglected by non-political radio at the time, and the record label denied it any promotion due to its provocative protesting and thus "unappealing" nature. Cash faced resistance and was even urged by an editor of a country-music magazine to leave the Country Music Association: "You and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs."
In reaction, on August 22, 1964, the singer posted a letter as an advertisement in Billboard Magazine, calling the record industry cowardly. "D.J.s -- station managers -- owners ... where are your guts?" he demands. "I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???" He concludes the letter, "Ira Hayes is strong medicine ... So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam." Cash kept promoting the song himself and used his influence on radio disc jockeys he knew eventually to make the song climb to number three on the country charts, while the album rose to number two on the album charts.
Later, on The Johnny Cash Show, he continued telling stories of Native-American plight, both in song and through short films, such as the history of the Trail of Tears.
In 1966, in response to his activism, the singer was adopted by the Seneca Nation's Turtle Clan. He performed benefits in 1968 at the Rosebud Reservation, close to the historical landmark of the battle at Wounded Knee, to raise money to help build a school. He also played at the D-Q University in the 1980s.
"The Man in Black"
From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode; the Carter Family and rockabilly legend Carl Perkins were also part of the regular show entourage. Cash also enjoyed booking mainstream performers as guests; including Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (who appeared a record four times), James Taylor, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, Derek and the Dominos, and Bob Dylan. During the same period, he contributed the title song and other songs to the film Little Fauss and Big Halsey, which starred Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard, and Lauren Hutton. The title song, The Ballad of Little Fauss and Big Halsey, written by Carl Perkins, was nominated for a Golden Globe award.
Cash had met with Dylan in the mid-1960s and became closer friends when they were neighbors in the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his audience. Cash sang a duet with Dylan on Dylan's country album Nashville Skyline and also wrote the album's Grammy-winning liner notes.
Another artist who received a major career boost from The Johnny Cash Show was Kris Kristofferson, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a singer/songwriter. During a live performance of Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", Cash refused to change the lyrics to suit network executives, singing the song with its references to marijuana intact:
By the early 1970s, he had crystallized his public image as "The Man in Black". He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in contrast to the costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day: rhinestone suits and cowboy boots. In 1971, Cash wrote the song "Man in Black", to help explain his dress code:
He wore black 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. "And", Cash added, "with the Vietnam War as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans', I wore it 'in mournin' for the lives that could have been.'... Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don't see much reason to change my position... The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we're not making many moves to make things right. There's still plenty of darkness to carry off."
He and his band had initially worn black shirts because that was the only matching color they had among their various outfits. He wore other colors on stage early in his career, but he claimed to like wearing black both on and off stage. He stated that, political reasons aside, he simply liked black as his on-stage color. The outdated US Navy's winter blue uniform used to be referred to by sailors as "Johnny Cashes", as the uniform's shirt, tie, and trousers are solid black.
In the mid-1970s, Cash's popularity and number of hit songs began to decline. He made commercials for Amoco and STP, an unpopular enterprise in an era in which oil companies made high profits while consumers suffered through high gasoline prices and shortages. However, his first autobiography, Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. A second, Cash: The Autobiography, appeared in 1997.
His friendship with Billy Graham led to the production of a film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated. Cash and June Carter Cash appeared several times on the Billy Graham Crusade TV specials, and Cash continued to include gospel and religious songs on many of his albums, though Columbia declined to release A Believer Sings the Truth, a gospel double-LP Cash recorded in 1979 and which ended up being released on an independent label even with Cash still under contract to Columbia. On November 22, 1974, CBS ran his one-hour TV special entitled "Riding The Rails", a musical history of trains.
He continued to appear on television, hosting an annual Christmas special on CBS throughout the 1970s. Later television appearances included a starring role in an episode of Columbo, entitled "Swan Song". He and June appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, entitled "The Collection". He gave a performance as John Brown in the 1985 American Civil War television mini-series North and South. Johnny and June also appeared in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in recurring roles.
He was friendly with every US President starting with Richard Nixon. He was closest to Jimmy Carter, with whom he became close friends and who was a distant cousin of his wife, June Carter Cash.
When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1970, Richard Nixon's office requested that he play "Okie from Muskogee" (a satirical Merle Haggard song about people who despised youthful drug users and war protesters), "Welfare Cadillac" (a Guy Drake song which denies the integrity of welfare recipients), and "A Boy Named Sue." Cash declined to play the first two and instead selected other songs, including "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" (about a brave Native American World War II veteran who was mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his own compositions, "What Is Truth" and "Man in Black". Cash wrote that the reasons for denying Nixon's song choices were not knowing them and having fairly short notice to rehearse them, rather than any political reason. However, Cash added, even if Nixon's office had given Cash enough time to learn and rehearse the songs, their choice of pieces that conveyed "antihippie and antiblack" sentiments might have backfired. In his remarks when introducing Cash, Nixon joked that one thing he'd learned about the singer was one didn't tell him what to sing.
Highwaymen and departure from Columbia Records
In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee at age 48, but during the 1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, although he continued to tour successfully. In the mid-1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making three hit albums which were released beginning with the originally titled "Highwaymen" in 1985, followed by "Highwaymen 2" in 1990, and concluding with "Highwaymen - The Road Goes on forever" in 1995. Of the group's four members, Cash was the only non-Texan.
During that period, Cash appeared in a number of television films. In 1981, he starred in The Pride of Jesse Hallam, winning fine reviews for a film that called attention to adult illiteracy. In the same year, Cash appeared as a "very special guest star" in an episode of the Muppet Show. In 1983, he appeared as a heroic sheriff in Murder in Coweta County, based on a real-life Georgia murder case, which co-starred Andy Griffith as his nemesis. Cash had tried for years to make the film, for which he won acclaim.
Cash relapsed into addiction after being administered painkillers for a serious abdominal injury in 1983 caused by an unusual incident in which he was kicked and wounded by an ostrich he kept on his farm.
At a hospital visit in 1988, this time to watch over Waylon Jennings (who was recovering from a heart attack), Jennings suggested that Cash have himself checked into the hospital for his own heart condition. Doctors recommended preventive heart surgery, and Cash underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both recovered, although Cash refused to use any prescription painkillers, fearing a relapse into dependency. Cash later claimed that during his operation, he had what is called a "near death experience".
Cash's recording career and his general relationship with the Nashville establishment were at an all-time low in the 1980s. He realized that his record label of nearly 30 years, Columbia, was growing indifferent to him and was not properly marketing him (he was "invisible" during that time, as he said in his autobiography).
In 1984, Cash released a self-parody recording titled "Chicken in Black," about Cash's brain being transplanted into a chicken and Cash receiving a bank robber's brain in return. Biographer Robert Hilburn, in the 2013-published Johnny Cash: The Life disputes the claim made that Cash chose to record an intentionally poor song in protest of Columbia's treatment of him. On the contrary, Hilburn writes, it was Columbia that presented Cash with the song, which Cash - who had previously scored major chart hits with comedic material such as "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece at a Time" - accepted enthusiastically, performing the song live on stage and filming a comedic music video in which he dresses up in a superhero-like bank robber costume. According to Hilburn, Cash's enthusiasm for the song waned after Waylon Jennings told Cash he looked "like a buffoon" in the music video (which was showcased during Cash's 1984 Christmas TV special), and Cash subsequently demanded that Columbia withdraw the music video from broadcast and recall the single from stores--interrupting its bona fide chart success--and termed the venture "a fiasco.
Between 1981 and 1984, he recorded several sessions with famed countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill (who also produced "Chicken in Black") which were shelved; they would be released by Columbia's sister label, Legacy Recordings, in 2014 as Out Among the Stars. Around this time, Cash also recorded an album of gospel recordings that ended up being released by another label around the time of his departure from Columbia (this due to Columbia closing down its Priority Records division that was to have released the recordings).
After more unsuccessful recordings were released in 1984-85, Cash left Columbia (At least as a solo artist; he continued to record for Columbia on non-solo projects until as late as 1990, recording a duets album with Waylon Jennings and two albums as a member of The Highwaymen.)
In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create the album Class of '55; according to Hilburn, Columbia still had Cash under contract at the time, so special arrangements had to be made to allow him to participate. Also in 1986, Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul and his conversion to become the Apostle Paul. He recorded Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament in 1990.
After Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991. During this time, he recorded an album of new versions of some of his best-known Sun and Columbia hits, as well as Water from the Wells of Home, a duets album that paired him with, among others, his children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, as well as Paul McCartney. A one-off Christmas album recorded for Delta Records followed his Mercury contract.
His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity with an audience which was not traditionally considered interested in country music. In 1991, he sang a version of "Man in Black" for the Christian punk band One Bad Pig's album I Scream Sunday. In 1993, he sang "The Wanderer" on U2's album Zooropa. Although no longer sought after by major labels, he was offered a contract with producer Rick Rubin's American Recordings label, which had recently been rebranded from Def American, under which name it was better known for rap and hard rock.
Under Rubin's supervision, he recorded American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his Martin Dreadnought guitar - one of many Cash played throughout his career. The album featured covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin and had a great deal of critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash wrote that his reception at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career. This was the beginning of a decade of music industry accolades and commercial success. He teamed up with Brooks & Dunn to contribute "Folsom Prison Blues" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization. On the same album, he performed the Bob Dylan favorite "Forever Young".
Cash and his wife appeared on a number of episodes of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He also lent his voice for a cameo role in The Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)", as the "Space Coyote" that guides Homer Simpson on a spiritual quest.
In 1996, Cash enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and released Unchained (also known as American Recordings II), which won the Best Country Album Grammy in 1998. The album was produced by Rick Rubin with Sylvia Massy engineering and mixing. A majority of "Unchained" was recorded at Sound City Studios and featured guest appearances by Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and Marty Stuart. Believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography Man in Black, he wrote Cash: The Autobiography in 1997.
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome, a form of multiple system atrophy; according to biographer Robert Hilburn, the disease was originally misdiagnosed as Parkinson's disease, and Cash even announced to a concert audience that he had Parkinson's during a show in Flint, Michigan on October 25, 1997 after he nearly collapsed on stage; soon after his diagnosis was changed to Shy-Drager and Cash was told he had approximately 18 months to live. The diagnosis was later again altered to autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. The illness forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) contained Cash's response to his illness in the form of songs of a slightly more somber tone than the first two American albums. The video that was released for "Hurt", a cover of the song by Nine Inch Nails, fits Cash's view of his past and feelings of regret. The video for the song, from American IV, is now generally recognized as "his epitaph," and received particular critical and popular acclaim.
June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at the age of 73. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record, completing 60 more songs in the last four months of his life, and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. At the July 5, 2003, concert (his last public performance), before singing "Ring of Fire", Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage:
The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.
Cash continued to record until shortly before his death. His final recordings were made on August 21, 2003 and consisted of "Like the 309," which would appear on American V: A Hundred Highways in 2006, and the final song he completed, "Engine 143," which was recorded for his son John Carter Cash for a planned Carter Family tribute album.
While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Cash died of complications from diabetes at approximately 2:00 a.m. CT on September 12, 2003, aged 71--less than four months after his wife. It was suggested that Johnny's health worsened due to a broken heart over June's death. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
In June 2005, Cash's lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville was put up for sale by his estate. In January 2006, the house was sold to Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb and wife Linda and titled to their Florida limited liability company for $2.3 million. The listing agent was Cash's younger brother, Tommy. On April 10, 2007, during a major restoration of the property by the new owner, Cash's home was accidentally destroyed in a spontaneous combustion-ignited fire caused by workers using linseed oil products.
One of Cash's final collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously on July 4, 2006. The album debuted in the No.1 position on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for the week ending July 22, 2006. On February 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash's 78th birthday, the Cash Family, Rick Rubin, and Lost Highway Records released his second posthumous record, titled American VI: Ain't No Grave.
Cash was raised by his parents in the Southern Baptist faith tradition. He was baptized in 1944 in the Tyronza River as a member of the Central Baptist Church of Dyess, Arkansas.
A troubled but devout Christian, Cash has been characterized as a "lens through which to view American contradictions and challenges." A biblical scholar, he penned a Christian novel, Man in White, and in the introduction Cash writes about a reporter who, interested in Cash's religious beliefs, questions whether the book is written from a Baptist, Catholic, or Jewish perspective. Cash denies an answer to the book's view and his own, and replies, "I'm a Christian. Don't put me in another box." He made a spoken word recording of the entire New King James Version of the New Testament. Cash declared he was "the biggest sinner of them all", and viewed himself overall as a complicated and contradictory man. Accordingly, Cash is said to have "contained multitudes", and has been deemed "the philosopher-prince of American country music".
Cash is credited with converting actor and singer John Schneider to Christianity.
Cash's daughter Rosanne (by first wife Vivian Liberto) and his son John Carter Cash (by June Carter Cash) are notable musicians in their own right.
Cash nurtured and defended artists (such as Bob Dylan) on the fringes of what was acceptable in country music even while serving as the country music establishment's most visible symbol. At an all-star concert which aired in 1999 on TNT, a diverse group of artists paid him tribute, including Dylan, Chris Isaak, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dom DeLuise and U2. Cash himself appeared at the end and performed for the first time in more than a year. Two tribute albums were released shortly before his death; Kindred Spirits contains works from established artists, while Dressed in Black contains works from many lesser-known artists. In total, he wrote over 1,000 songs and released dozens of albums. A box set titled Unearthed was issued posthumously. It included four CDs of unreleased material recorded with Rubin as well as a Best of Cash on American retrospective CD. The set also includes a 104-page book that discusses each track and features one of Cash's final interviews.
In recognition of his lifelong support of SOS Children's Villages, his family invited friends and fans to donate to the Johnny Cash Memorial Fund in his memory. He had a personal link with the SOS village in Diessen, at the Ammersee Lake in Southern Germany, near where he was stationed as a G.I, and with the SOS village in Barrett Town, by Montego Bay, near his holiday home in Jamaica.
In 1999, Cash received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Cash No. 31 on their "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" list.
The main street in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Highway 31E, is known as "Johnny Cash Parkway".
The Johnny Cash Museum was located in one of Cash's properties in Hendersonville dubbed the House of Cash until 2006 when it was sold based on the will of Cash. Prior to this, having been closed for a number of years, the museum had been featured in Cash's music video for "Hurt". The House subsequently burned down during the renovation by the new owner. A new Museum, founded by Shannon and Bill Miller, opened April 26, 2013 in downtown Nashville.
On November 2-4, 2007, the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival was held in Starkville, Mississippi, where Cash had been arrested more than 40 years earlier and held overnight at the city jail on May 11, 1965. The incident inspired Cash to write the song "Starkville City Jail". The festival, where he was offered a symbolic posthumous pardon, honored Cash's life and music, and was expected to become an annual event.
JC Unit One, Johnny Cash's private tour bus from 1980 until 2003, was put on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2007. The museum offers public tours of the bus on a seasonal basis (it is stored during the winter months and not exhibited during those times).
A limited-edition Forever stamp honoring Cash went on sale June 5, 2013. The stamp features a promotional picture of Cash taken around the 1963 release of "Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. WWE Superstar The Undertaker used Cash's version of Ain't No Grave at WrestleMania XXVII as his entrance theme.
Country singer Mark Collie portrayed Cash in John Lloyd Miller's award-winning 1999 short film, I Still Miss Someone.
In November 2005, Walk the Line, a biographical film about Cash's life, was released in the United States to considerable commercial success and critical acclaim. The film featured Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor) and Reese Witherspoon as June (for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress). Phoenix and Witherspoon also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy and Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, respectively. They both performed their own vocals in the film (with their version of "Jackson" being released as a single), and Phoenix learned to play guitar for the role. Phoenix received a Grammy Award for his contributions to the soundtrack. John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June, served as an executive producer.
On March 12, 2006, Ring of Fire, a jukebox musical of the Cash oeuvre, debuted on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but closed due to harsh reviews and disappointing sales on April 30. Million Dollar Quartet, a musical portraying the early Sun recording sessions involving Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, debuted on Broadway on April 11, 2010. Actor Lance Guest portrayed Cash. The musical was nominated for three awards at the 2010 Tony Awards, and won one.
Robert Hilburn, veteran Los Angeles Times pop music critic, the journalist who accompanied Cash in his 1968 Folsom prison tour and interviewed Cash many times throughout his life including months before his death, published a 688-page biography with 16 pages of photographs in 2013. The meticulously reported biography is said to have filled in the 80 percent of Cash's life that was unknown, including details about Cash's battles with addiction and infidelity. The book reportedly does not hold back any details about the darker side of Johnny Cash and includes details about his affair with his pregnant wife June Carter's sister.
Awards and honors
Cash received multiple Country Music Association Awards, Grammys, and other awards, in categories ranging from vocal and spoken performances to album notes and videos. In a career that spanned almost five decades during which he rose to recording industry icon status, Cash was the personification of country music to many people around the world. Cash was a musician who was not tied to a single genre. He recorded songs that could be considered rock and roll, blues, rockabilly, folk, and gospel, and exerted an influence on each of those genres.
His diversity was evidenced by his presence in four major music halls of fame: the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2013). Only thirteen performers are in both of the last two, and only Hank Williams Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Bill Monroe share the honor with Cash of being in all three. Cash was the only inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the regular manner, unlike the other country members, who were inducted as "early influences".
His contributions to the genre have been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Cash received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, and stated that his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 was his greatest professional achievement. In 2001, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. "Hurt" was nominated for six VMAs at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. The only VMA the video won was that for Best Cinematography. With the video, Johnny Cash became the oldest artist ever nominated for an MTV Video Music Award. Justin Timberlake, who won Best Video that year for "Cry Me a River", said in his acceptance speech: "This is a travesty! I demand a recount. My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash, and I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight."
- Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words, Zondervan, 1975; ISBN 9-992-43158-X
- Man in White, a novel about the Apostle Paul, HarperCollins, 1986; ISBN 0-062-50132-1
- Cash: The Autobiography, with Patrick Carr, HarperCollins, 1997; ISBN 978-0-06-101357-7
- Johnny Cash Reads the New Testament, Thomas Nelson, 2011; ISBN 9781418548834
- "Recollections by Johnny Cash, edited by daughter Tara, 2014; ISBN 978-0-930677-03-9
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