Icon and iconoclast, he was a patriot, admired by convicts and congressmen. He adhered to no one path, no one party. At the time of his death in 2003, he was championed by teenagers, their parents and their grandparents. He was embraced by soldiers and anarchists, by conservatives and liberals, yuppies and rednecks. Like the black he wore, he was the whole color spectrum in a single entity.
J.R. Cash was born into a life so spare that his parents wasted no letters on a full name. Raised on a government farming project about halfway between Blytheville, Arkansas, and Memphis, Cash’s family grew cotton on the acreage behind their house, scraping by with a community of other dirt farmers. When his mom put down a linoleum floor in the kitchen, J.R. and his siblings would return from the fields on their lunch break, lay with their cheeks on the cool floor, and listen to the cabinet-sized radio their dad had purchased.
The military made his “J” into “John”, and it gave him worldly experience, including a stint in Landsberg, Germany, and an introduction to amphetamines. In 1954, honorably discharged, he was living in Memphis, selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and attending a radio announcer’s school. He was married and the father of a growing family, and had met two car mechanics who played bass (Marshall Grant) and guitar (Luther Perkins); together, they made an uncluttered sound. Cash hounded Sam Phillips for an audition, and it was his song “Hey Porter” that won him a Sun Records contract.
The simplicity attributed to Johnny Cash’s “boom-chicka-boom” music is a misconception, as anyone who has ever tried to imitate it can verify. Like a Samuel Beckett play, the finished piece may seem composed of few and simple parts, but knowing which parts to include – the ones creating the emotional drama —is the essence of the art.
Their music was everyman music, but it was singular. Johnny sang in a deep voice, Luther played one guitar string at a time, and Marshall played a bouncing bottom. They earned a regular spot on the Louisiana Hayride, the same radio broadcast that broke Elvis and Hank Williams to wider audiences. “I Walk the Line” was only his second single, and it went to the top of the country charts and broke the top 20 pop; it won him a place on the Grand Ole Opry. At Sun, he expanded his sound working with producer and songwriter Jack Clement, lending his dark, worn voice to pop confections like “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”. Cash released seven singles on Sun over five years, firmly establishing himself as a country artist with pop potential.
Like Elvis, Cash left Sun Studio for pastures with more green. At Columbia, his “Ring of Fire” in 1963 confirmed his broad appeal. And like Elvis (and others), the path was paved with groupies and pills. Cash battled a lifelong drug addiction, but instead of concealing his flaws, he wore his vulnerability to forge a career and a public persona devoted to the weak and the victimized. He followed “Ring of Fire” with the albums Bitter Tears and Ballads of the True West, reflecting on the plight of the Native Americans and the pioneers.
He continued his personal and professional affinity with the underdog. In 1968, his “At Folsom Prison” became a hit on both the country and the pop charts. His alliance with the hardened criminals enhanced Cash’s outlaw image, but his focus was on reform: making prison life better and giving prisoners hope. Cash dutifully honored a summons to the White House by President Nixon in 1970, but after singing for an hour, he declared that he didn’t believe in the Vietnam War and urged Nixon to get the boys home. Nixon respected Cash’s outspokenness, and invited him back to the oval office in 1972. Cash used the opportunity to advocate for prison reform.
These pronouncements from the most visible man in country music went a long way toward changing mainstream mores about war, bigotry, and tolerance. No figure in the history of country music ever made a greater social impact or took more professional risks in the process. On his extraordinary network television show, from 1969 to 1971, he introduced the broad populace to disparate artists (including the re-emergence of Bob Dylan after a 3-year hiatus), embracing television as a vehicle for uniting both sides of the raging culture clash. On his TV series, we see Neil Young and Pete Seeger playing next to Bill Monroe and the Carter Family, reminding America that the difference between “country” and “folk” was really non-existent.
The drama of Johnny Cash’s life continued, a new act always appearing before the old one could become predictable. In the 1980s, he united with old friends Kris Kristofferson (a leftie), Waylon Jennings (a right winger), Willie Nelson (a libertarian), and Cash (all of the above) to form the Highwaymen. When he partnered with hip-hop producer Rick Rubin in 1994, no one expected them to reinstall Cash as a preeminent cultural icon. And while those albums introduced Cash to a new audience, the old audience remained. From AIDS charities to evangelical services, Cash was committed.
Perhaps it was just that - Cash’s independence - that marked him most. It’s the most beloved of American traits and something that unifies people across the political and cultural spectrum. In his latter years, he recorded old gospel songs alongside stark interpretations of cutting edge anthems by post-punk artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Nick Cave. The day of his passing, his music could be heard everywhere: on jukeboxes, in bowling alleys, in churches and on MTV.