By John Cody
THE MUSIC WORLD recently lost the only artist ever inducted into theRockabilly, Country and Western, Songwriters, and Rock n’ Roll Halls ofFame.
Johnny Cash, like Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington and few others, transcended genres and reached listeners on a level deeper than mere entertainment. Refusing to recognize boundaries, he was equally at home performing in prisons, churches and the White House. His songs were to-the-point, and easy to relate to. A quintessential working man’s poet, he touched on the human condition – chiefly themes of sin and redemption – with an unflinching eye.
Like his music, Cash boldly wore his faith on his sleeve, unapologetically; it was a rare thing in the superficial world of show biz – as was his enduring love affair with his wife, June Carter. As a credo for his life, Cash cited Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
Since his passing, tributes have been voiced by everyone from gangsta rapper Snoop Dog and rock poet Nick Cave to President George W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham. U2’s Bono described him as “the most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy next to Johnny Cash.”
Born in 1932, Cash was raised on a cotton farm in Arkansas. He began writing songs at the age of twelve; he sang in church, and also with his family. Many times, he recounted how his mother had insisted that he had a special gift: “She said, ‘God has His hand on you. You’ll be singing for the world someday.'”
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Cash joined the Air Force; he was stationed in Germany, where he worked as a radio operator, intercepting Soviet radio messages. He learned guitar while in the service; he continued to write songs, including ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Hey Porter’ (which was printed in the service newspaper, Stars and Stripes).
After being discharged in 1954, he married Vivian Liberto and moved to Memphis, where he worked as an appliance salesman. He met two local mechanics, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, who played bass and guitar. As Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, the trio performed gospel on a weekly radio show.
The group approached Sun Records label head Sam Phillips, who was riding high with Elvis Presley. Phillips felt the gospel material lacked commercial potential, but eventually signed them on the strength of Cash’s original songs.
In 1955, the group’s debut release, ‘Hey Porter’ backed with ‘Cry Cry Cry,’ was an immediate hit. His voice, sounding world weary and already wise beyond his years, was natural; Cash only ever took one singing lesson – and the teacher advised him to refrain from any training, as it could affect his delivery.
During his tenure with the label, Cash wrote and recorded classic songs like ‘I Walk The Line,’ ‘Get Rhythm,’ There You Go’ and ‘Big River.’ Frustration at Phillips’ refusal to record gospel led to Cash leaving Sun and signing with industry giant Columbia Records in 1958. That same year he released Hymns, the first of many gospel efforts.
The sixties opened – literally on January 1, 1960 – with Cash performing at San Quentin Prison – the first of a career-long practice of prison performances.
The next year, he began working with June Carter, daughter of Maybelle Carter, from the legendary Carter Family. June was country royalty, and Cash had grown up listening to her and her family’s music on the radio. They soon fell in love, but there were significant trials. In the midst of a downward slide due to drug and alcohol abuse, Cash’s marriage, which had produced four daughters, was falling apart.
In 1963 Carter wrote one of Cash’s biggest hits, ‘Ring Of Fire,’ which was inspired by their relationship. She was in love with Cash, but married to another man. “I used to go to church every day for a year,” she said. “I used to get out my Bible and look through it. I used to wear out my knees and pray.”
Cash commented: “We knew what was going to happen: that eventually we were both going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did . . . but the ‘ring of fire’ was not the hell, that was kind of a sweet fire. The ring of fire that I found myself in with June was the fire of redemption. It cleansed. It made me believe everything was all right.”
Cash was close with Junes’ family, especially her father, Ezra ‘Eck’ Carter. Eck was a student of early Christianity, and while he rarely attended church, he was a devout believer. Years later, Cash recalled their time together:
“I came to see Pop as a great teacher. On Sundays, we’d sit and talk about the Bible. I never asked him why he never went to church, and he never asked me. That was our church right there – those books, those walls, those conversations. And it was very effective in sealing some very important things in my heart and soul.” Like Johnny’s mother, Eck was convinced that God had his hand on Cash.
Meanwhile, Cash had been hanging out in Greenwich Village, hub of the burgeoning folk scene, and was one of the first performers to cover Bob Dylan, in a duet with June on ‘It Ain’t Me Babe.’ In 1964, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival.
The same year , he released Bitter Tears – Ballads Of The American Indian, a collection of First Nations protest songs. When radio refused to play the album’s single, ‘The Ballad Of Ira Hayes,’ he took out a full page ad in the trade publication, Billboard. The ad bluntly asked radio programmers: ‘Where are your guts?”
By the middle of the decade, the dark side of Cash was in full force. Despite his popularity, he frequently missed performances; he was banned from the Grand Ole Opry after smashing out all the stage lights with the base of his mike stand.
He also set off a 500-acre forest fire, totaled a number of cars, was arrested while crossing the U.S./ Mexican border with more than 1,000 illegal pills, and attempted suicide by driving his tractor into a lake. Over a two-year period, he was arrested seven times; and yet, he never stopped singing gospel.
He later commented: “Maybe I was a little bit ashamed of myself at the time because of the hypocrisy of it all. There I was, singing the praises of the Lord and singing about the beauty and the peace you can find in Him – and I was stoned.” For Cash, the physical and emotional toll was considerable; but worst of all were the spiritual ramifications.
“[I] put myself in such a low state that I couldn’t communicate with God. There’s no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn’t even trying to call on him. I know that there was no line of communication. But He came back. And I came back.”
In 1968, following an onstage proposal during a show in London, Ontario, June and Johnny were married. According to Cash in his autobiography, The Man In Black, he “had just come off seven years of addiction to amphetamines and other prescription drugs.” There would be relapses, but none approaching the severity he had earlier experienced.
The same year saw the release of Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. Recorded only three weeks after he had beaten his habit, the live album went double platinum and spent two years on the pop charts. It was joined in 1969 by Johnny Cash At San Quentin, which held the number one position on the album charts for a month and included the hit single ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ In between the two live albums he released The Holy Land, which featured gospel music with narrative.
Commercially, these were his most successful years. At one point in 1969, Cash was outselling the Beatles – with his sales alone accounting for five percent of all records sold in North America. He began The Johnny Cash Show on ABC television, a ratings hit which brought first-time national exposure to a number of significant acts, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The guest list ran the musical spectrum, including his close friend Bob Dylan, as well as Louis Armstrong, the Monkees, Stevie Wonder and Pete Seeger.
In 1971, Cash rededicated himself to Christ. Rather than being at the bottom with nothing to lose, it was when he was on top that he recommitted to his childhood faith.
“After I had managed to overcome my pill habit and things started to go good again, I had to realize that it was the prayers of a lot of people that pulled me through. And so I felt like it must be for a purpose – that God had some purpose of earth for me.
“So when June and I got married, we decided to do things differently. We had both been converted when we were younger; but we’d given our bodies to the devil, and we’d really been through hell. So we decided to try to go back – to try to feel that touch of God we’d felt so long before.”
He spoke of a newfound sense of responsibility: “I don’t have a career anymore. What I have now is a ministry. Everything I have and everything I do is given completely to Jesus Christ now. I’ve lived all my life for the devil up ’til now, and from here on I’m going to live it for the Lord.”
Asked if the tough guy image would be threatened by his stance, he responded: “Becoming a Christian doesn’t make me one bit less a man than I’ve ever been. Being a Christian isn’t for sissies. It takes a real man to live for God – a lot more man than to live for the devil, you know? If you really want to live right these days, you gotta be tough.
“I guess I’ve committed every sin there is to commit, and I know what it’s like on the other side of the street. I know what’s good for a man and what’s bad for a man. I know what will break up a marriage. I know what will ruin a home. I know what will tear up a man’s life. And I’m not going to have any of that stuff around anymore.”
After finishing up his television series, he traveled to Israel to produce Gospel Road – a film about the life of Christ. In many ways paralleling Mel Gibson’s current endeavors with The Passion, Cash financed the entire production himself rather than risk compromising his vision. He also produced In The Footsteps of Jesus, a documentary shown on American television.
He was a frequent guest during Billy Graham Crusades, but expressed frustration with the Christian community: “The churches are full, but the slums and the ghettos are still full; and for the most part, the churches and the needy haven’t quite gotten together yet. And until more people in the church realize the real needs of the people, and go out rather than going in . . . I mean, to go into church is great, but to go out and put it all into action, that’s where it’s all at. And I haven’t seen a lot of action.”
He took a decidedly different view of society’s rejects: “Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised . . . ain’t no end to street people. There’s no end to the people of the margins. There’s no end to the people who can relate to that.”
While some converts choose to sing positive, upbeat songs, Cash continued to focus on real world concerns. He loved to sing gospel, but never went for simplistic, innocuous material. He maintained this attitude to the end, stating in his final interview: “I’m an artist who is a Christian. I’m not a Christian artist.” This stance served to confirm his place as an honest believer.
In his 1997 autobiography, Cash claimed that he tried to speak for “voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments.” If it ruffled feathers, so be it.
He wrote ‘Man In Black,’ an anti-war song released during the height of the Vietnam War. Not easily boxed in, he also traveled to Vietnam to perform for the troops.
As vital as the gospel story was to him, he respected others who weren’t interested. “If I’m with someone who doesn’t want to talk about it, I don’t talk about it. I don’t impose myself on anybody in any way, including religion. When you’re imposing you’re offending, I feel – although I am evangelical and I’ll give the message to anyone that wants to hear it, or anybody that is willing to listen. But if they let me know that they don’t want to hear it, they ain’t ever going to hear it from me. If I think they don’t want to hear it, then I will not bring it up.”
The eighties were a time of commercial decline for Cash. He performed with former Sun records label mates Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis as the Class Of ’55, and with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen; but neither effort yielded sales equal to those of the previous decade.
In 1987, his long term deal with Columbia ended, and he released albums on Mercury. But his fortunes continued to wane. The sanitized ‘New Country’ sound of acts like Garth Brooks left no room on radio for Cash and his rugged voice. He carried on touring, and in 1986 wrote The Man in White, a fictional account based on the life of the Apostle John. Cash had studied first century Roman history extensively since his time with Eck Carter, and the book was well received.
An incident indicative of the man was reported in the Cape Cod Times in 1989. A local writer, with no entertainment connections, attempted to get autographs for two Down Syndrome fans. Through the kindness of Cash’s tour manager, he managed to finagle backstage entrance to a performance for himself and the two youths.
Much to their surprise, rather than simply giving them autographs, Cash appeared and spent a half hour alone with the boys before his show; he treated them with the same respect and reverence he would have afforded a powerful music executive. Moved to near tears when both boys told him that they prayed for him regularly, Cash paid tribute to them by starting his show with their favourite song, ‘Ring of Fire’ much to the delight of his new pals.
Cash experienced a critical renaissance in the ’90s, after signing with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Rubin had made his name in metal and rap, producing Public Enemy, Run DMC, Slayer and the Beastie Boys. What may have seemed an odd pairing wasn’t as much of a stretch as it appeared, however.
Cash had been listening to heavy metal for years. He was a fan of Iron Maiden, Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne. Interviewed in 1987, he talked about attending various heavy metal shows: “All the kids were nice to me. I’d have them come by and shake my hand and say, ‘Man, what are you doing at an Ozzy concert?’ And I said, ‘I’m enjoyin’ the show! Great light show!’ Iron Maiden’s also got a great show, with all the special effects and everything. And Metallica, you know, before that guy got killed, they were fabulous! Three musicians – just knocked me out. That’s the way I started – just me and two others.”
Not that his next albums could be mistaken for metal. The initial release, 1994’s American Recordings, was simply Johnny and his guitar. Follow-up albums Unchained (1996), Solitary Man (2000) and The Man Comes Around (2002) offered Cash in a variety of settings – from bare bones to full-on band performances.
Rubin surrounded him with sympathetic players, and cover versions of contemporary songs by the likes of Soundgarden, Beck, Nick Cave, Danzig and Depeche Mode mixed well with traditional numbers and Cash originals.
The irony of a comeback after Nashville had washed their hands of him was not lost on Cash. When he won a Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998, his label took out an ad in Billboard that read: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” It was accompanied by an infamous photo of an enraged Cash giving a photographer the middle finger at his 1968 San Quentin Prison concert.
In the final decade, his eyesight began to fail as a result of diabetes; he underwent heart surgery; and was misdiagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome, a fatal neurological disease. Yet he was hardly down for the count.
At an all star tribute, popular acts including Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, U2 and Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to the man. While their hearts were in the right place, the minute Cash hit the stage for a short set, it was obvious they couldn’t hold a candle to the honest, effacing power he and his small group summoned up.
A highlight of his final album, The Man Comes Around, was ‘Hurt.’ Originally by industrial metal giants Nine Inch Nails, Cash described it as “probably the best anti-drug song I’ve ever heard.” It was an extraordinary performance, and was accompanied by a remarkable video.
Opening with Cash looking old and frail, singing with a hard-earned wisdom, it combined shots of him in his prime with footage from Gospel Road. A remarkable piece, in August of this year the video was nominated for six awards, including video of the year, at the MTV Music Video awards (it won for cinematography).
While ‘Hurt’ received the most attention, the title track was equally impressive. Cash spent more time on this song than any other in his career. Loosely based around the Book of Revelation, it speaks of coming judgment and an accounting for every human life: “Everybody won’t be treated the same / There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down / When the man comes around.”
In the disc’s liner notes, he wrote: “I am persuaded that nothing can separate me from my love of my God, my wife, and my music.”
In May of this year, June died from heart surgery complications. Cash was devastated. He went back to work, returning to the studio and recording 30 songs. At his first public appearance after her death, at the Carter Family Fold music festival, he spoke from the stage:
“I don’t know hardly what to say tonight about being up here without her . . . The pain is so severe there is no way of describing it.” That Cash himself would be gone some weeks afterward – after complications from diabetes resulted in respiratory failure – is hardly a surprise, and an entirely fitting end to an incredible life.
His mother was right: God did have a hand on him. The fact that he left such a rich legacy is our gain.
© John Cody 2003