A list of the most influential artists in history chosen by country stars themselves, another honoree is announced each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown .
One of country music’s most iconic figures, Cash’s body of work stretched from 1955 until his death in 2003 and showed him to be truly multidimensional artist. In fact, he is now enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
As a man of faith who was no stranger to sin and rebellion, the Man in Black, as he came to be known, was also committed to the ideals of social justice. He performed at prisons and said he wore black in solidarity with the downtrodden of the world, even famously taking a public stand for Native American rights.
Some of Cash’s most enduring hits include “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” He had his own television variety show, The Johnny Cash Show, and formed the supergroup the Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
After falling out of favor with the mainstream country music establishment in the 1980s, Cash made a late-career resurgence with the help of rock and rap producer Rick Rubin on the American Recordings series.
He died in Nashville fourth months after the passing of his wife, June Carter Cash.
“Even all of his kids knew that he had this magnetic charisma,” daughter Rosanne Cash said. “People were drawn to him. People were fascinated by him. In the beginning, when we were kids, that was hard to share. But as we got older, we realized a great artist belongs to the world — not just his family. And it became easier to be graceful about sharing him.
“My dad had the wackiest sense of humor,” she continued. “He would sometimes tell these elaborate stories with this completely offbeat punchline. He would draw you in. You would think this story was true, and then there would be some punchline that was crazy, and you’d realize it’s been a couple of hours thinking this up. And he could be so silly. I mean, I have a picture of him in cowboy boots on the diving board of the pool. (laughs) He was funny.”
“There’s so many different people in different walks of life that claim my father as their own,” son John Carter Cash said. “I think it was because he stood up for the underdog. … He was willing to sing the songs for the people that nobody else was talking about, to point out the issues that no one would go to, the things that were pushed under the shelf like the Native American issues. He wasn’t afraid to say what he believed in.”
Haggard said Cash had an aura of authority around him at all times.
“His way was simple, indelible,” the fellow Country Music Hall of Famer said. “It was direct and very recognizable, unforgettable. … He could outshine any current president (of the United States) that I was ever around. He had more of what it is that made him Johnny Cash — the mystique. There could be 30 people in this room we’re here in, then Cash would walk in, and everybody would lose their place.”
“He was bigger than life,” Daniels agreed. “Not just physically, but his persona, his personality just took command of any setting or room he was in. … He wrote his stuff, he sang it the way he felt like he ought to and he was an original. And that’s what makes people great is being original, being different, being yourself. And if yourself is good enough, you can be something very special.”
“I go back to the fact that he was what he said he was,” Rogers said. “He wasn’t going to change his thing.”
For Gatlin, it was Cash’s ability to connect with the people he entertained that made him so special.
“He was an incredible human,” Gatlin said. “He had faults. Everybody knows about that, and that’s why he was ’the everyman.’ That’s why normal, common, ordinary people could identify with him.”
“John had a voice that every human being in the world could relate to,” Bare added. “And you had to believe him because he said it with such authority. … He was everything. He was a record star, he was a TV star, a movie star, you name it.”