The music world is mourning the death of one of America’s most influential performers, Johnny Cash. The 71-year-old member of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame died early Friday morning (Sept. 12) at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.
“Johnny died due to complications from diabetes, which resulted in respiratory failure,” longtime manager Lou Robin said in a statement issued by the hospital. “I hope that friends and fans of Johnny will pray for the Cash family to find comfort during this very difficult time.”
Cash had been hospitalized frequently in recent years for a variety of illnesses, including pneumonia and autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system. His wife, June Carter Cash, died May 15 at the age of 73 of complications from heart surgery.
Cash returned to the hospital after being released Tuesday (Sept. 9) following a three-week stay for treatment of a stomach ailment. The hospitalization forced him to cancel an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York. Robin told CMT News this week that Cash planned to travel to California to work with producer Rick Rubin on an album tentatively titled American V, the follow-up to his award-winning American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash had also planned to be in Nashville in November for the CMA Awards, where he’s nominated in four categories.
In a career that encompassed nearly five decades, Cash enjoyed success as a songwriter, performer, actor and author. Cash was a man who could converse as easily with his fans as with U. S. Presidents and world figures. He counted Rev. Billy Graham among his closest friends, and he was a guest at the White House during the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton. Cash’s most recent visit to the White House was to receive a Kennedy Center Honor awarded in 1996 by Clinton.
During his career, Cash placed nearly 140 singles on Billboard‘s country charts as a recording artist. Only fellow Hall of Fame members Eddy Arnold and George Jones surpass Cash’s chart success. His string of hit recordings, many of them penned by Cash is impressive, to say the least. “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Home of the Blues,” “I Got Stripes,” “Big River,” “I Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” are in the repertoire of any serious fan of classic country music. Nearly all bear the terse, distinctive sound of Luther Perkins’ guitar and Cash’s incredible ability to convey a story –- or emotion -– through song.
Well-respected by country, folk and rock music fans alike, Cash’s recording career was revitalized in 1994 when he signed with Rubin’s American Records label. Cash released a pair of critically acclaimed albums, American Recordings and Unchained, which earned him a pair of Grammys in 1995 and 1997 in the folk and country categories, respectively.
Cash was a charismatic individual who possessed a commanding presence. When he entered a room, all attention immediately shifted to the singer. His signature black stage attire and Top 5 single, “Man in Black,” earned him the moniker “The Man in Black” in the early 1970s. Kris Kristofferson, writer of one of Cash’s best-loved songs, “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” once said of his fellow Highwayman, “You don’t have to see him to know he’s there. Hell, people who don’t know country from corn flakes know Johnny Cash.” Kristofferson’s observation about his longtime friend is no exaggeration for Cash’s resonant deep bass voice could easily be considered one of the most recognizable –- if not the most recognizable –- voice in popular music.
Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Ark. Named simply J. R. (he assumed the name John while serving in the Air Force), Cash was one of seven children born to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash. At age 3, Cash moved with his family to Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas under a Roosevelt farm program. As a youngster, Cash worked with his family in the cotton fields on the 20-acre expanse, often times singing while they worked to make the time pass more quickly.
Cash’s lifeline to the outside world was the battery-powered radio in the family’s living room. After the chores were done, Cash would listen at night to programs originating from WLS in Chicago, WSM in Nashville and WLW in Cincinnati. Closer to the Cash home was the High Noon Round-Up beamed out of WMPS in Memphis, Tenn., that featured “Smilin'” Eddie Hill and the Louvin Brothers. Of those times Cash wrote in his 1975 autobiography, Man in Black, “Nothing in the world was as important to me as hearing those songs on that radio. The music carried me up above the mud, the work and the hot sun.”
The Church of Christ in Dyess Colony also provided Cash with some of his first musical exposure as did the hymns and folk songs he learned from his mother. By the time he had reached his teens, Cash was honing his writing skills and singing at school assemblies and church specials. After graduating from high school in 1950, Cash worked briefly in the automotive business in Detroit before enlisting in the U. S. Air Force. Serving stateside for a year, Cash was stationed in Germany as a radio intercept operator with Security Service.
While in Germany, Cash acquired a guitar and organized his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. In July 1954, Cash was honorably discharged from the service at the rank of Staff Sergeant and returned stateside. Later that summer, he married Vivian Liberto, whom had he met while taking his basic training in Texas (the pair later divorced). The newlyweds settled in Memphis, and Cash tried to earn a living as a door-to-door appliance salesmen. He also attended Keegan’s School of Broadcasting with an eye cast toward a job in radio.
During that time, Cash’s older brother, Roy, introduced him to a pair of mechanics named Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, who also shared Cash’s passion for music. After getting together to play informally for friends and neighbors, the threesome played their first public appearance at a church in north Memphis. And it was for this first gig that Cash adopted the all-black stage costume. “We talked about clothes and thought we should try to dress alike, but nobody had a nice suit, and the only colored shirts we had alike were black,” wrote Cash in his autobiography. Hence, the beginnings of the signature stage image that Cash would wear throughout his career.
Propelled by the success of Elvis Presley on Sun Records, Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips in 1954. He originally approached the legendary record producer about recording gospel music, but Phillips quickly vetoed that idea. The following year Cash went back to Phillips with secular music — his own compositions — and was signed to the label. His first recording session took place on March 22, 1955, and yielded “Hey Porter” and featured the sparse instrumental accompaniment of Perkins and Grant on electric guitar and upright bass, respectively. The song, inexplicably, failed to make a dent in the charts. Phillips apparently saw the potential in Cash and took him back in the studio two months later for another session. “Cry, Cry, Cry,” which was recorded in May 1955, charted, peaking at No. 14, and Cash was on his way. Based on the strength of the single, Cash started touring with label mate Elvis Presley, performing at the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s now-legendary show at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. That same year, Cash met fellow artist Carl Perkins with whom he would become lifelong friends and later recruit as a member of his road show in the 1960s.
Cash’s follow-up singles “So Doggone Lonesome” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” fared even better than “Cry, Cry, Cry,” both hitting the Top 10, but it was Cash’s fourth chart single, “I Walk the Line,” that proved to be his career song. Recorded April 2, 1956, “I Walk the Line” sold over 2 million copies and spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard country chart out of an impressive 43-week run. The song topped out at No. 17 on the trade publication’s pop chart, marking the first of several Cash songs to cross over into that field.
From that point forward, Cash established himself as a vital force in music and as a bankable recording artist. Subsequent hits, “There You Go,” “Next in Line,” “Home of the Blues,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Big River” all reached the upper registers of the charts. By 1957, Cash was appearing on both the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, La., and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and his personal appearance schedule numbered more than 200 dates a year. That same year he also staged his first concert in a prison when he performed for the inmates at the Texas State Prison in Huntsville, Texas.
In 1958, Cash left Sun and signed with Columbia Records. Although he had enjoyed tremendous chart success with Phillips, Cash still wanted to record gospel music and believed his chances were better at doing so with Columbia. His first chart single for the label, “All Over Again” backed with “What Do I Care” was a double-sided hit, with both songs reaching the Top 10.
Cash released a pair of albums for Columbia, The Fabulous Johnny Cash and his first gospel project, Hymns by Johnny Cash. His singles, many of which Cash penned, continued to chart consistently including “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Got Stripes” and “Understand Your Man.” Appearances on major network programs including The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Ozark Jubilee further expanded Cash’s popularity outside of the mainstream country audience. In the early ’60s, Cash also made his movie debut with an appearance in Five Minutes to Live, a low-budget thriller co-starring Cay Forrester.
In 1960, Cash released Ride This Train, the first in a series of concept albums. Recordings such as these put Cash before the folk music crowd, culminating in a 1964 appearance at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival on the same bill with Bob Dylan. Cash, who was becoming more keenly aware of political and social issues by this time, included Peter LaFarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” on the 1964 album, Bitter Tears. Initially, radio was hesitant to play the song about the tragic death of the World War II hero, so Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine asking the programmers, “Where Are Your Guts?” The song did eventually receive airplay and managed to crack the chart’s Top 5. Cash also began his musical partnership with his wife of 33 years, June Carter. The pair recorded a series of duets for Columbia with some singles making a very respectable chart showing that included “Jackson,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” and “If I Were a Carpenter.”
By the mid-1960s, Cash’s personal life was in shambles, and his use of pep pills was starting to impact his career. To keep up with the demands and long hours of the road, Cash, like many musicians at the time, developed a dependence on amphetamines, which would plague his life for the better part of a decade and contribute in part to the dissolution of his marriage in 1966. He was missing shows and recording sessions due to chronic laryngitis (brought on by the pills), and concerns were growing among his friends and family over his gaunt appearance.
He was dropped from the Opry roster in 1965 when, in a fit of frustration and anger, he took out the footlights on the Opry stage with a microphone stand. Some minor skirmishes with the law, including a highly publicized arrest in El Paso, Texas, when Cash was returning from Mexico with a substantial number of Dexedrine and barbituates was further evidence that Cash was on a downward spiral. Cash wrote in his autobiography that an arrest two years later one night in Lafayette, Ga., “was the turning point of it all.” A kind-hearted sheriff finally got through to Cash with some comments he made and Cash realized he needed to turn his life around. When he got back to Nashville, he called June Carter and asked her for help in kicking his habit. June, along with her parents took up residence in Cash’s new lakefront home in Hendersonville, Tenn., and helped him slay the demons that had been chasing him. Their support and Cash’s renewed religious faith helped to bring the singer back from the brink of disaster –- and possibly death.
The late 1960s and early ‘70s signaled a renaissance in Cash’s career and a more stable home life. Carter and Cash were married on March 1, 1968, and the union produced a son, John Carter Cash. Cash also managed to begin mending his relationship with daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Tara and Cindy. He was one of the hottest artists on the country scene and was making even more inroads in the pop market. His album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was a runaway hit, and the single, a remake of “Folsom Prison Blues,” surpassed Cash’s original recording of the song on the record charts going all the way to the No. 1 spot.
The album was a natural for Cash to do. For several years, he had performed benefit shows for inmates at prisoners around the country. In fact, at a 1958 appearance California’s San Quentin Prison, a young and very impressionable Merle Haggard was among the inmates in the audience. In early 1968, Cash and producer Bob Johnston made country music history with the recording of the event. The album was part of the soundtrack to the summer of 1968, right along with recordings by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The album won Cash the CMA’s album of the year honors as well as a Grammy. Cash would repeat his success the following year with Johnny Cash at San Quentin. The Shel Silverstein-penned hit single, “A Boy Named Sue,” topped the country chart and fell just shy of the top spot on the pop chart. Cash again repeated his Grammy and CMA successes — this time garnering an impressive four awards from the latter organization.
Cash’s road show was one of the big acts in the business and featured an impressive lineup: Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, June Carter Cash and the Carter Family appeared as part of Cash’s shows, that now numbered in the neighborhood of 200 dates a year. In 1969, ABC television launched a one-hour musical variety series, The Johnny Cash Show. Filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the show served as a vehicle for introducing hard-core country fans to a host of the generation’s most imposing songwriters including Dylan (with whom he recorded a duet, “Girl From the North Country” for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album), Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It also exposed younger music fans to mainstream country performers such as Haggard as well. Cash was also able to showcase some of his favorite story songs in the Ride This Train segment of the show, often tying them in with historical events or pieces of Americana. A live recording from the show of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” netted Cash yet another No. 1 hit and substantially raised the songwriter’s stock within the music industry.
In 1971, Cash was again given the opportunity to appear on the big screen when he co-starred with Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight. The following year, Cash premiered Gospel Road, a film about the life of Christ shot on location in the Holy Land and produced by Cash. He expanded his acting to television in the made-for-TV movies, Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1981) and The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James. He also appeared on the popular television series Columbo and Little House on the Prairie (which also featured June Carter Cash).
Throughout the ’70s, Cash continued to produce solid records, although the hits began to wane toward the end of the decade. In 1980, Cash was honored for his innumerable contributions to country music with induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time, Cash was the youngest living member to be inducted into the hallowed hall.
In 1985, Cash teamed up with pals Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kristofferson for the Highwayman album, which yielded a No. 1 single for the title track and a Top 20 nod for Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” The group toured on a limited basis and made an appearance (with Haggard subbing for Kristofferson) at the first Farm Aid benefit in Illinois. The quartet reunited for a pair of follow-ups, Highwayman II (1990) and Highwayman: The Road Goes on Forever (1995).
In the latter half of the decade, Cash paired up with Jennings for one album, Heroes, and was included on the Class of ’55 (Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming) that also featured former label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as well as Rick Nelson, John Fogerty and Marty Stuart.
Cash’s solo recording career, however, had tapered off substantially. The hits were few and far between, and in 1986, Cash was dropped by Columbia. Emotions were mixed along Music Row. Some felt the label owed Cash more respect, while others, who perhaps didn’t understand the breadth of Cash’s contributions toward raising the visibility of country music to a wider audience, merely shrugged it off as business as usual.
Cash rebounded with a recording contract with Mercury Records, for whom he released a pair of albums, Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town (1987) and Water From the Wells of Home (1988). The latter album included guest appearances by Tom T. Hall, Hank Williams Jr. and Emmylou Harris and the song “Moon Over Jamaica, which was penned by Cash, Hall and Paul McCartney. The album also yielded one chart single, “That Old Wheel,” a duet with Williams. Two years later, Cash made a guest appearance on Zooropa, by rock group U2, singing “The Wanderer.” In 1987, Cash published his account of the life of the Apostle Paul, Man in White, for Harper & Row.
In 1990, Cash received a Lifetime Achievement award from NARAS, making him one of a handful of country artists to be so honored by the organization. In 1992, Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to that music form, and later that year he and June were one of the few Nashville country artists to appear at the Dylan 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden.
After signing with American Records, Cash’s career was once again jump-started, thanks in large part to record producer Rubin, known in rock circles for his work with the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., System of a Down, Audioslave and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Named for Rubin’s record label, Cash’s American Recordings was a very stark collection of songs with Cash singing along to his simple guitar accompaniment and featured songs by Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe and Loudon Wainwright III. The second album for the label, Unchained, featured Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and other guest performers including one-time son-in-law Stuart. After Cash received the Grammy for Unchained, his record company took out a full-page ad in Billboard that featured a photograph of Cash giving a salute to the Music Row folks who had written him off a decade earlier.
Petty and members of the Heartbreakers also appeared on Cash’s American III: Solitary Man, a 2000 project that also featured guest appearances by Haggard and Sheryl Crow. The title track, “Solitary Man,” won Cash the Grammy for best male country vocal performance. American III was also nominated for the 2001 Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album.
Despite lingering health problems, Cash and Rubin reunited for the 2002 album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash covered such classics as the Beatles’ “In My Life” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but the album’s highlight was a remake of “Hurt,” a song first written and recorded by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. The song’s lyrics were underscored in a music video directed by Mark Romanek. Another track on the album, “Give My Love to Rose,” won a 2003 Grammy for best male country vocal performance.
On April 7, 2003, Cash was honored with a career achievement award at the CMT Flameworthy 2003 Video Music Awards. June Carter Cash accepted the award on his behalf during a segment that included a video tribute featuring his daughter, Rosanne Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Kristofferson, Wynonna, U2’s Bono, Reznor and Romanek.
Cash had already recorded approximately 50 songs at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., for his American V album, expected to be released in early 2004. At the time of his death, Cash was planning a trip to California to work with Rubin to decide which of the tracks would be released on the upcoming album.
In the meantime, plans were already underway to release more than 100 outtakes from his sessions with Rubin for a compilation tentatively titled Unearthed. Set for release around Christmas, Unearthed is expected to feature four discs of previously unreleased material, with a fifth disc of highlights from the earlier albums produced by Rubin. The previously unreleased tracks include a duet with late Clash singer Joe Strummer, one of several recorded by the punk legend and Cash during impromptu sessions last year. Plans call for one of the discs to be an acoustic collection of gospel songs.
Cash is also featured on June Carter Cash’s final album, Wildwood Flower, released Sept. 9. The couple’s last live performance took place on Sept. 13, 2002, at the Americana Music Awards show in Nashville. Following his wife’s death, Cash made his final public performance during a surprise appearance on July 5 at Carter Fold, a rustic amphitheater at the Carter Family Memorial Music Center in Hiltons, Va.