People, especially Americans, love our heroes. We flock to anything Superman, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman, setting aside our reality for a while to bask in something otherworldly. More than human. Something super. > Read more
But just as Superman fails in the sight of kryptonite, Iron Man lets poor Pepper down time after time, and Wonder Woman is bound to her lasso and bracelets of victory, our heroes aren't perfect. They're beautifully, wonderfully, disastrously flawed. Such is the case with one of America's most beloved superheroes, the Late, the Great Johnny Cash.
Humble Beginnings for a Legend
J.R. "Johnny" Cash was born and christened J.R. in Depression Era Kingsland, Arkansas. When he joined the military, he couldn't use initials as a first name, so he changed it to John R. Cash. But everybody who was anybody just called him Johnny. Cash's time in the Air Force, much of it stationed in Germany, were also unhappy times for the young man. In fact, the loneliness and longing expressed in his hit "Folsom Prison Blues" was most likely drawn from those days away from home and family.
Many a celebrity built a career on playing rebel. For Cash, it was no act. His upbringing was meager, to understate it, and his life took a tragic turn that never quite straightened out when his brother was killed as a child in a freak accident in carpentry class, an event the senior Cash blamed Johnny for. Though he never did hard time, Cash was no stranger to the inside of a jail cell, in which he generally landed for drug possession. Well, he did record some live albums at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, but not as a convict. Cash became known as "The Man in Black" for his propensity to wear all black clothing, which he did to remind folks that not everyone is rich and privileged.
Johnny Cash the Man
Cash's drug use escalated along with his career, and at one point (according to his biographer, Robert Hilburn) he was taking 20 amphetamine pills a day at the peak of his addiction. He also struggled with alcoholism, and solidified his outlaw reputation with a few trashed hotel rooms and some hair-raising experiences behind the wheel.
But unlike so many music legends, Cash did beat his addictions and went on to live a happy life clean and sober. Apart from a brief relapse after an accident in the 70's, which required some painkillers and triggered that hungry monster of addiction, he remained clean until diabetes claimed him at age 71. During his final stint in rehab, he made pals with fellow music legend Ozzy Osborne. Cash was also good buddies with other music icons, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Though his hit single “I Walk the Line” was written about his commitment to his first wife and the mother of his children, Vivian, he eventually left her for actress, dancer, and comedian June Carter. The song is also supposed to be about his spiritual life, which he occasionally stepped out on, as well. He drew heavily from his real-world experiences during the first part of his career, penning and crooning in that sweet, smooth bass-baritone voice about "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Hey Porter" (his first single). But nailing down a lot of the exacts with Cash is tricky, because he freely admitted that the truth never got in his way when it came to telling a good story. Many of the anecdotes passed on about Cash and his antics are simply great tales by a legendary storyteller.
Johnny Cash's Career
Later, Cash's music turned more commercial and less openly personal, with hit tunes like "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Wide Open Road." That trend reversed in the 90's when he revived his career with the help of producer Rick Rubin. The first of their work together produced the album American Recordings, and earned him a Grammy. Rubin got him back to his roots with strong messages in his songs that people could relate to.
In addition to his extensive music recordings, Cash also appeared in several movies and TV shows, including Gunfight and Murder in Coweta County. Always, he appeared as The Man in Black, a tribute to, as he put it, “the poor and the beaten down,” and, “the sick and lonely.” Those were the people Cash held in his heart; not the rich and fabulously famous who surrounded him in Nashville.
Cash, often touted as a "Country artist" nonetheless gave us music that was a one-of-a-kind blend of rock, country, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel, but it will always be his voice that fans adore and remember. Well, the voice and his openness about his own human frailness and shortcomings.
But it wasn't just singing about rebellion and heartache that catapulted Cash to greatdom. Redemption played as big a role as falling from grace. He had a heart for those who were suffering, rejected, or feeling unworthy. He had a strong faith in God and, although his brand of Christianity was often imperfect and messy, he never stopped believing in redemption through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Lord, Cash was also passionate about the causes of Native Americans. In fact, his plight for them cost him some grief within the Country music establishment, and it was even suggested he leave due to his activism for Native tribes and their people. As with his unapologetic stance for Christ, Cash refused.
Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold Johnny Cash
Cash passed away just months after his wife, June, causing many to believe he died as much from a broken heart as from diabetes. At her insistence, he kept recording until the month just prior to his death, September of 2003.
Cash's musical legacy is literally unparalleled. He produced music across an incredible career span of nearly 50 years, releasing some 96 albums, not including his many collaborative efforts with other artists. His awards and achievements are equally lengthy and impressive, including numerous awards from the Country Music Association, Grammys, Kennedy Center, National Medal of Arts, and inductions into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Unlike most artists who record under the "country" label, Cash was entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a "performer," not just an "early influencer."
While Cash's achievements and accomplishments are too extensive to name, his words never failed to cut right through the smoke and haze and get right to the chase. At one show in the 70's, following his rather public rededication to Christ, Cash remarked: "I'm not here tonight to exalt Johnny Cash. I'm standing here as an entertainer, as a performer, as a singer who is supporting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm here to invite you to listen to the good news that will be laid out for you, to analyze it, and see if you don't think it's the best way to live."
Never perfectly, but always heroically, Johnny walked the line.