Known affectionately as the Man in Black, Johnny Cash is a figure who has towered over popular music, casting a long shadow over the history of both country and rock and roll.
He was born and raised in Arkansas, and was writing songs from the age of twelve, inspired by the artists that he heard on country radio. Unlike many of the legends of his time, he did not pick up a guitar until much later, purchasing one while he was in the Air Force. After his time in the service, Cash married and settled down in Memphis, Tennessee, working odd jobs while focusing on his music at night.
Memphis was at the crossroads of music history in the fifties, and after his country music trio scored some local radio time, Cash landed his first audition for Sun Records president Sam Phillips. He sang gospel the first time out, and was turned down, but when he returned with the more mainstream “Hey Porter”, he landed a deal with the label. His first singles were billed as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. When “Cry, Cry, Cry” hit the top twenty nationwide, Cash earned a slot on the Louisiana Hayride.
By 1957, Cash was a regular on both the country and rock charts, much like his contemporary and one time labelmate, Elvis Presley. Cash moved from Sun to Columbia, where he would spend the next three decades as one of their top acts. Cash consistently scored hits throughout the sixties, and released several concept albums that revealed his knowledge of American history and love for historical music. Despite having some big hits during this time, like “Ring of Fire” and “Understand Your Man”, Cash’s struggles with drug addiction were making it difficult for him to maintain a consistent level of success.
A new marriage to June Carter and a conversion to Christianity helped turn things around, and by the end of the sixties his star had reached new heights. Two live albums recorded in prisons and a popular network television show made Cash a bigger star than he had ever been before, with “A Boy Named Sue” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” crossing over to the pop charts.
But the hits became more sporadic in the seventies, and when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, it looked like his best days were behind him. He was unceremoniously dropped from Columbia in the mid-eighties, and put out a handful of poorly received albums with Mercury. He would later describe this period of his career as when he was “burlesquing Johnny Cash” instead of being Johnny Cash.
But Cash returned with a new energy and vision when he partnered with producer Rick Rubin, releasing the critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning American Recordings in 1994. The mostly acoustic album was the first in a series with Rubin that would introduce Cash to a new generation of fans. Three more volumes were released during his lifetime. The final one before his death, American IV, included a cover of the Nine Inch Nails classic “Hurt.” A haunting video was filmed to accompany it, and was one of the final things Cash created with his wife, June, in early 2003. June passed away only weeks later, and Cash followed her in death that September.
In the years since his passing, a Hollywood film about Johnny and June called Walk the Line further immortalized Cash’s legacy, and his catalog sales in recent years have been extraordinary, ensuring his music and legend will live on for the foreseeable future.
- Folsom Prison Blues, 1956
- I Walk the Line, 1956
- Ballad of a Teenage Queen, 1958
- Guess Things Happen That Way, 1958
- Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, 1959
- Ring of Fire, 1963
- Daddy Sang Bass, 1968
- A Boy Named Sue, 1969
- Sunday Morning Coming Down, 1970
- Hurt, 2003
- With his Hot and Blue Guitar, 1956
- Songs of Our Soil, 1959
- Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 1963
- At Folsom Prison, 1968
- At San Quentin, 1969
- American Recordings, 1994
- Unchained, 1996
- American III: Solitary Man, 2000
- American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002
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