Johnny Cash is a legendary performer that spanned five decades of popular music. In the 1950’s he toured with Elvis and Jerry Lee, playing a straightforward, meat and potatoes brand of rockabilly with the Tennessee Two. His life has been chronicled in his autobiography and in the movie Walk the Line
The movie ended just as Cash’s career began a brand new stage. The Live at Folsom Prison album became a best-selling album and is regarded as one of music’s most essential recordings. He went on to have great success through the 1970’s, including hosting his own television show where he showcased artists that you didn’t get to see on network television.
By this time, Johnny Cash had already carved his niche as a legend in country music, in fact he was one of the first inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He enjoyed a late career renaissance with his American recordings with producer Rick Rubin that found Cash playing to the traditional country fans and to the new breed of alternative rock kids.
His and his beloved wife June Carter’s deaths were treated with respect and appreciation for everything they did for music, and for who they were as people. Posthumous albums have followed, and there will still be more to come. For anyone not familiar with Johnny Cash, there are several wonderful compilations, as well as classic albums that are perfect introductions to this iconic figure in American music.
The following is a mere smattering of Cash’s music. It’s impossible to encapsulate five decades in ten songs.
“Cry, Cry, Cry” – Many of Cash’s first singles have remained his most enduring songs. This statement by a spurned over has all the elements that made Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two so great. This was attitude from the gutter.
“Folsom Prison Blues” – With one lyric, Cash caught the country’s imagination. He spent his life refuting claims he spent time in prison. Maybe punk rock can trace its roots back to Cash singing “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.
“I Walk the Line” – The songs was beautifully simple and Cash’s voice could emote any feeling. Even if it wasn’t true you believed it when he sang, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.”
“Ring of Fire” – June Carter wrote this song with Merle Kilgore about the intensity of her feelings for Johnny. He threw on some Mexican horns and it became a country classic, despite everyone in Nashville telling him otherwise.
“A Boy Named Sue” – A novelty song that Cash turned into something enduring. Only a man like Johnny Cash could have sung this and had you believe every word. The live version in San Quentin prison is phenomenal as every inmate hoots and hollers with every absurd couplet.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” – Cash created a stir by performing this Kris Kristofferson-penned song on his television show. Executives didn’t like the “its Sunday morning and I’m wishing I was stoned” lyric. Executives are always wrong, the song is beautiful, and Kristofferson’s lyrics were a perfect match for Cash’s deepest valley voice.
“Man in Black” – In a three minute song, Cash created a legendary image that only he was able to carry. The song still resonates, and the images are still fresh, probably because we still have the same problems.
“Delia’s Gone” – Cash experienced a career slump in the 1980’s. The country music hit machine traded Cash and his aging outlaw brethren in for fresh new faces that could push more records. Like Waylon and Willie, Johnny took a different route out of Nashville. Rap and metal producer Rick Rubin looked like a genius for simple putting Cash in front of a microphone, with just his old guitar, and let him sing all the songs he wanted to sing. “Delia’s Gone” is Cash at his darkly funny best. An ode to the lowdown woman he would have married, if he didn’t have to kill her.
“When the Man Comes Around” – “Hurt” was a grand statement Cash made before his death. The Nine Inch Nails song had everyone talking about the Man in Black. But it was Cash’s own “When the man Comes Around” that was the beautiful, cryptic, and visionary centerpiece to his American IV album.
“Like the 309” – This was the last song Cash wrote before his death. It is signature Johnny Cash. With a macabre sense of humor, honesty and conviction Cash sings about the train that takes his dead body back to its final resting place. His soul was already somewhere better.