Johnny Cash: 1932-2003: 'In a garden of weeds, the oak tree'

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The Independent Culture
Country music lost its Man in Black yesterday. Johnny Cash, a true original on the Nashville scene who defied categorisation and industry expectations for almost half a century, succumbed to respiratory failure and diabetes in a Tennessee hospital after years of severe health problems.</p>With him went one of the last genuinely legendary figures in the American music business. Cash helped Bob Dylan to find his voice, inspired the Rolling Stones, blended country music with rock and blues at least three decades before it became genuinely fashionable and, in an age of country radio increasingly dominated by sentimental rhinestone pap, was careful always to keep it simple, raw and real.</p>Bruce Springsteen spoke for many of his peers when, at a 1999 tribute concert, he said Cash "took the social consciousness of folk music, the gravity and humour of country music and the rebellion of rock 'n' roll and told all us young guys that not only was it all right to tear up all those lines and boundaries, but it was important".</p>The man responsible for such classics as "I Walk The Line", "Folsom Prison Blues" and "A Boy Named Sue" held up the best traditions of country music by speaking directly to ordinary men and women and their emotions in an often tough and unfair world. He sang about coal miners and sharecroppers, and identified himself so closely with convicts - singing a celebrated series of concerts in prisons in the late 1960s - that many people assumed, wrongly, that he had served hard time himself.</p>Although he had his start in the business at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, Cash never played along with the pearly-white kitsch of mainstream country music, preferring to perform in an all-black uniform, complete with preacher-style frock coat and hat. Country music programmers were frequently perplexed or disapproving of his departure from the norm, but they could never afford to ignore him.</p>At 71, one might have expected Cash to have faded into retirement, but instead he kept playing and recording right up to the end, despite suffering from a Parkinson's-like disorder and a whole host of other health problems. He was, indeed, enjoying a new flourish of popularity with his four American Recordings</i> series, in which he covered a surprising range of songs written by everyone from Depeche Mode to U2 and Nine Inch Nails.</p>He also spawned a musical dynasty of sorts. His second wife, June Carter Cash, who died just four months ago, was a member of Nashville's legendary Carter Family and collaborated with him in writing the early 1960s hit "Ring of Fire". Various children have also followed him into the music business, notably his daughter Roseanne Cash, by his first marriage.</p>Tributes flooded in yesterday from all parts of the music industry, underlining the deep respect Cash commanded irrespective of genres.</p>Mick Jagger told the BBC he "loved him as a singer and a writer" who had supplied the Stones with many of the songs they played in their early years on the road. Nick Cave, the nihilistic frontman of the Bad Seeds, who recorded with Cash, said: "He had such a wealth of experience in his voice, heaven and hell and no one could touch him." Bono, of U2, remembered being shown around Cash's personal zoo in Nashville and said: "He was more than wise. In a garden full of weeds - the oak tree."</p>Cash came from modest roots in the tiny town of Kingsland, Arkansas. Although his interest in music was obvious from a young age, circumstances dictated that he worked first on a car assembly line in Michigan and then joined the air force. While in the military he taught himself the guitar and began writing songs, and on his discharge in 1954 he put together a country band and approached Elvis Presley's label, Sun Records. There, the legendary producer Sam Phillips - who also died recently - was sufficiently impressed with his two demos ("Hey Porter!" and "Folsom Prison Blues") to commission a third song, the uptempo tale of lost love "Cry! Cry! Cry!", which became Cash's first hit single.</p>With Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash pioneered a distinctively southern "boom-chicka-boom" rockabilly sound that was to help revolutionise recorded music. A photograph taken in December 1956 of Cash, Presley, Perkins and Lewis was subsequently nicknamed "The Million Dollar Quartet". Soon, Cash was on a hectic schedule of writing, recording and touring. The decision to play San Quentin prison near San Francisco in 1959 caused a considerable stir in the industry but also made music history: one of the inmates in the audience was Merle Haggard, who was sufficiently inspired to launch his own highly successful country career once he was released.</p>Cash took large quantities of amphetamines to keep up his energy, helping to give his voice its distinctive low growl but also leading him down the path to addiction, which he struggled to overcome for most of his life. The drugs destroyed his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto, in the mid-1960s, and his efforts to wean himself off them was an abiding theme of his second.</p>"My liberation from drug addiction wasn't permanent," he later wrote. "Though I never regressed to spending years at a time on amphetamines, I've used mood-altering drugs for periods of varying length at various times since 1967: amphetamines, sleeping pills and prescription painkillers."</p>Despite the drugs, the 1960s and early 1970s were a period of exceptional productivity and popularity for Cash. His 1968 live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison</i>, recorded in California, has become a must for any serious collector of country music.By the 1980s, though, he had been rejected as passé by the Nashville establishment and struggled for years to reassert himself. In a notorious advertisement that appeared in Billboard</i>, the music trade magazine, in 1998, Cash was photographed giving the finger to country music stations who had ignored him even as his album Unchained </i>won the Grammy for best country album.</p>In 1997 he was forced to give up touring because of ill health. He told one of his last audiences, in the blue-collar town of Flint, Michigan, that he had Parkinson's disease and at first they laughed, thinking he was joking. The Parkinson's diagnosis was later modified to a rare nervous disorder called Shy-Drager, although there were some doubts whether this was accurate either.</p>Asked to account for his success, he once said: "That music has got a simple beat people can relate to, and a haunting quality that tries to go right to the gut and to the heart, and sometimes it does." He remained true to that philosophy to the end. "A song has to be something I can feel. And 'feel' covers a lot of space with me."</p>

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