His career spanned nearly fifty years. His music has been loved by millions of fans, from nearly every walk of life. He was a member of both the Country Music and the Rock And Roll Halls of Fame, something few artists get to claim. His original compositions have been covered countless times, inlcuding recently on a pair of tribute albums. And his interpretations of others’ songs have changed the way they are heard, through fifty years of music, five decades of artists who have been influenced by him, with no lines drawn for genres.
He may have been just a man. And there are some who might say that his passing means little more in the grand scheme of things than any death. But Johnny Cash will live on in the minds of all who he touched through his music, as one of very few true legends.
It was 1955 when legendary producer and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips signed J.R. “Johnny” Cash to his first record contract. When, after only his second Sun Records session, “Folsom Prison Blues” was born, it hit the country music charts like a storm, and a career was begun.
For the next fifteen years, he’d continue to have chart success with his own songs, and he never did quit writing. But it was around the late sixties when he began to be known as much for how he handled the songs of others as for how he handled his own. A string of hits including “A Boy Named Sue” penned by popular children’s writer Shel Silverstein, and a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” opened his music up to a new generation. The latter single topped the country charts and became Cash’s first minor pop hit, leading him to become renowned throughout the music world as “a songwriter’s champion”.
This was a legacy he never left behind, even when his label, Columbia, ditched him in the Eighties. For years, Cash remained musically silent, until in 1993, when Rick Rubin gave him the chance to launch, as Rolling Stone called it, “the unlikeliest of country music comebacks” as he signed a deal to record for Rubin’s American label. The match seemed to be perfect, as Cash sounded like a new man.
The American recordings were quite diverse, an eclectic mix that put unlikely covers like Cash’s rendition of Glen Danzig’s “Thirteen” alongside more “natural” choices like Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire” and Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me”. There seemed to be no shortage of perfect material for Rubin and Cash to work with on what became Cash’s four American albums. It’s like Joe Strummer said once, “when Cash is looking for songs, word gets out … there’s scurrying, though you kind of just send it in. You don’t really get to go, ‘Look Mr. Cash!'”
His death was far from sudden. Cash had been in ill health for nearly six years. But it is how he handled his illness that really impressed me. Despite the multiple visits to the hospital, you could say he remained defiantly prolific, with the trademark grit and raw energy that had made him a legend. He recorded dozens of songs over the past two years, fifteen of which wound up on his latest album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, which featured his cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. That is the same song that won him an MTV Video Award, and yet was completely snubbed by country radio. Cash and Rubin had intended to pare down fifty songs to a possible fifteen for American V, but the year had been tough for Cash, who lost his wife June Carter Cash, while still battling his own illnesses. Rubin may still release the fifth and final American album posthumously.
In the end, it’s that hard working, grim and determined nature, that will insure that Cash’s legacy will live on through all of his music. It’s always a shame when we lose the great voices in music, but it’s a testament to the universality of Cash’s music that his career didn’t end when country music abandoned him. The last decade, his four American albums, and his repuation as a songwriter’s champion, will be what all who have loved his music will try to pass on to a new generation.
The man in black rides on.