Johnny Cash

Icon of country music

Saturday 13 September 2003 00:00

John R. Cash, singer: born Kingsland, Arkansas 26 February 1932; married 1954 Vivian Liberto (four daughters; marriage dissolved 1966), 1968 June Carter (died 2003; one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 12 September 2003.

Johnny Cash was one of the last great icons of American country music. More than any other performer he embodied the myth of country artist as frontiersman. His life's work was dedicated to giving a voice to those constantly driven to the margins of American life.

Born in Arkansas in 1932, he was the son of an impoverished cotton farmer. His early years, spent working the southern soil, were to have a lasting effect on shaping both his character and music. The family moved to Dyness, Mississippi, when he was young, bringing him close to Memphis, the city which was to have a big part in his formative recording career.

He was 12 years old when his elder brother Jack died in a horrific accident with a circular saw, a loss that affected him greatly. The younger Cash became a withdrawn, often solitary figure, finding solace either picking his guitar or singing the poignant death songs and lost love ballads of such southern heroes as Jimmie Rodgers or joining with his family and members of the small God-fearing rural community to sing gospel and hymns by the Carter Family amongst others.

It was during the time spent with the United States Air Force in Germany in the early Fifties that Cash began to come into his own as both songwriter and performer. There he wrote his first song, "Folsom Prison Blues", the start of a fascination and attachment to the American prison system which was to nurture some of his most memorable work. Back home he married Vivian Liberto, in 1954, and worked as a vacuum-cleaner salesman between attempts to break into show business. It was Sam Phillips, the visionary record-label owner who launched the recording careers of Cash's contemporaries Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, who gave Cash his first break as a recording artist for Sun Records in 1955.

Teamed with the erstwhile partners Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins (the Tennessee Two), he worked at Sun for three years, recording a collection of songs which endure not just as simple direct compositions, but also for the power and clarity of the performances. Technically Cash was hardly a great vocalist; he had tried to effect the mannerisms of his heroes but it didn't suit. However, his greatness as a singer was undeniable; barely modulating his speaking voice, he just opened his mouth and out came a sound that seemed to rise from the sole of his well-shod boots, a bass rumble that assumed a compelling power and authority. Songs like "Hey Porter", "Big River" and "King of the Blues" were stripped clean of customary country-music embellishments like strings and fiddle, the ominous primitive accompaniment of Perkins and Grant focusing all the attention on Cash's voice.

He was party to the cross-cultural fertilisation that produced the exuberant, exclamatory rock'n'roll of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, but in his own inimitable style. Where his label mates were driven to emulate the joyous release and crazed spirit of black Pentecostal and rhythm-and-blues performers, Cash's influences lay more in the solemn world-weary Delta blues of Robert Johnson or the folk style of Woody Guthrie.

Prevented from recording the religious material that had been his first love, his own lyrics would often develop like a sermon or Baptist confessional. "I Walk the Line" (1956) was his vow to stand firm against temptation: the words could almost have been an Old Testament parable. But, as the world of entertainment and stardom beckoned, demands on both Cash's moral and physical reserves became harder to handle.

Touring constantly and signing for the major label Columbia, in 1958, he began the pill-popping habit which was to put a continuous and agonising strain on his body and psyche in later years. His daughter Rosanne, who became a renowned country star in her own right, remembered him as an unsettling childhood influence.

He moved us out to southern California in 1959 but whenever he was home he upset the routine, things just weren't normal. At Christmas time he would put giant speakers on the side of the mountain where we lived and blast Christmas carols down to the poor community below. Once he went out on his tractor and it sparked - he set the whole mountain on fire. He used to set fires a lot when he was high.

Despite the wild moods and eccentric behaviour, despite arrests for everything from possession of firearms, amphetamine possession and even picking wild flowers, Cash continued to produce great work, evocative portraits of old America with its railroads, hobos and reckless, often destructive impulses. The latter was captured on Bitter Tears: ballads of the American Indian, a towering concept album cut in 1961 before the term "concept album" had come into common usage.

Cash had left Sun Records not only because of the wider audience Columbia could give him but also because he was being forced into a pop mould which was anathema to this complex, thoughtful artist. He was now free to examine all aspects of his country's folk memory, recording collections of railroad songs, Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963), a tribute to the workers' champion John Henry, and Now There Was a Song (1960), which was Cash's own history of country music, covering both obscure and famous songs from its rich heritage.

As far as the country-music establishment in Nashville was concerned, however, he remained an outsider. An early appearance at Music City's famed Grand Ole Opry when he had trashed the stage didn't help, but the man himself blamed the hierarchy's snobbery. Even in later years he never felt at ease in the so-called home of country music:

I was never part of the scene in Nashville. I first went there in 1956 and my impression was they didn't want to know me. I remember being made to wait ages for an audition by the manager of the Grand Ole Opry and I never forgot that.

Cash's image was that of a 20th-century gunslinger. A towering bulk clad in black, with a guitar strapped around his back, he developed an imposing stage presence, moving with a deliberate stalking gait, his face set in stoic but sad expression. Both his studied theatricality (his recording career was paralleled by a fitful though hardly impressive acting career) and many of his songs became a metaphor for the American condition, capturing the eternal restlessness, confusion, dissatisfaction and longing for an earlier, simpler time.

In the early Sixties his marriage to Liberto fell apart and he began to fall in love with June Carter, a member of the same musical family which had inspired him as a child. She was to be a constant feature, both in The Johnny Cash Show (a revue which was seldom off the road during the last 35 years) and a source of care and comfort during his many troubled years. They married in 1968 and Carter, her sisters and indeed Cash's own mother provided a powerful matriarchal support system for the tempestuous prodigal son whose life was lived out under that peculiarly southern battle between religious righteousness and pharmaceutical abuse.

At the end of the Sixties Cash was an unassailable figure, outspoken champion of the oppressed, a voluble critic of the Vietnam war whose anti-racist stance brought death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and a performer whose virulent anti- authoritarianism was captured on the LPs Live at Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). He attained international fame with his syndicated weekly television show where his guests included his friend Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and Ray Charles.

He was also a physical and nervous wreck. Nursed back to health by his wife, he produced the sanctimonious autobiography Man in Black (1975 - after his 1971 hit "The Man in Black"), which he would castigate in later years for its lack of humility. He turned increasingly towards religion, befriending the evangelist Billy Graham, and travelling to Israel to work on his second book, Man in White: a novel (1986), a study of the life and times of Paul the Apostle.

By the early Eighties he was an ambassador for country music, but the vitality of his greatest work seemed to have deserted him. Paradoxically, yet another brush with death sparked off a career regeneration. In 1986 he left Columbia, where his recording career had long been neglected, signed for Mercury and teamed with Jack Clements, the producer from his early days at Sun, he recorded Johnny Cash is Coming to Town (1987). It was his finest album in years, with a version of Guy Clarke's death-of-a-hobo lament, "Let Him Roll", which underlines his talent as one of the great interpretative singers of his era.

He still campaigned vigorously, launching the Freedom Train Trek across America to publicise the plight of the homeless, playing every year in prisons and Indian reservations ("I think the Indian peoples are in an even worse prison than San Quentin; they have unemployment of 70 per cent, no money, no income and terrible alcoholism," he once told me). He also joined with his friend and fellow performer Kris Kristofferson to protest against his government's involvement in Nicaragua.

The revival in his career fortunes was short-lived. Changes in Mercury's management once again left him marginalised and forgotten. For his final release on the label only 500 copies were printed. Meanwhile it was his always precarious health and battles with drug addiction which continued to grab the headlines. After being attacked by an ostrich on the farm-cum-menagerie he kept in Hendersonsville, outside Nashville, he succumbed to painkillers and a bout in the Betty Ford Treatment Centre. Shortly afterwards, a heart bypass operation brought him close to death.

Once again, a period of recuperation and reflection was followed by an unlikely but wholly triumphant comeback. The catalyst this time was Rick Rubin, a mogul from a new generation of American music who had found his fortune in rap, metal and hard rock. But Rubin recognised the simple indivisible quality of Cash the troubadour singing songs directly from the heart.

The resulting album, American Recordings (1994), was Cash in his starkest ever musical setting - the Cash myth laid bare in all its strange, darkly comic and brooding intensity. It won a Grammy award and catapulted Cash in front of a new audience. In 1994 he joined the travelling alternative American rock festival Lollapalooza and played to an appreciative Glastonbury audience which included the Gallagher brothers of Oasis. He also guested on U2's Zooropa album, singing "The Wanderer", a song which cast him as the ultimate post-rock, post-nuclear prodigal survivor.

Constant touring bore witness to his restlessness and need to prove himself. He supplemented his own tours with occasional stints with the Highwaymen, a kind of living Mount Rushmore of country music which included Willie Nelson, his pill-popping pal Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, whose "Sunday Morning Coming Down" had become one of Cash's most poignant performances.

In 1997 he published his second autobiography, Cash, showing an altogether more humble and solemn person than the man who had written Man in Black. "Just because I went through treatment it doesn't mean I'm saved. I know I'll have the disease all my life."

It was while promoting the book that he was misdiagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome, an illness very similar to the Parkinson's disease which had killed his grandfather. But Cash was a medical mystery as much as a musical giant - doctors later decided that he had a form of diabetes.

Again, his determination won through. Against all predictions Johnny Cash was back making his peace with the Grand Ole Opry and playing live there in July 1998 with Kristofferson. Death had loomed over him for so long he felt he had the measure of it. "When you know death is in your town you should be taking care of business. Quit gazing out the windows at the lake and start telling your stories."

And so he continued - until the end determined to extend his range and do justice to the best of what he had achieved. Cameo appearances on albums by his son-in-law Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart (where he recited lines from Tennyson's poem "Sir Galahad") took on added gravity.

A third instalment of his collaboration with Rubin, Solitary Man (2000), confirmed the full-blooded nature of his end of career revival .This despite spending 12 days in a coma after contracting pneumonia just before the recording. Between wreaking quiet devastation on songs by Tom Petty, U2, Nick Cave and the alt country figurehead Will Oldham he joined with his fellow hard-living survivor Merle Haggard to deliver a tough unsentimental obituary on the self-penned "I'm Leaving Now".

But Cash stuck around. Last year's Rubin collaboration The Man Comes Around was yet another career highlight, reinterpreting songs by Depeche Mode, The Beatles and Hank Williams, among others. Most astonishing was the award-winning video to accompany Cash's cover version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt", a no-holds-barred look at addiction and self-loathing. An unnervingly moving and naked portrait of a man bearing the scars of an often self- destructive life style, it also featured the watchful June Carter.

When Carter died earlier this year, Cash vowed to devote what time he had left to recording. Just before his death, he and Rubin were preparing a five-CD box set featuring many unreleased tracks, including a version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" recorded with Joe Strummer.

Gavin Martin

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