There was, of course, the
voice: an unbelievably low and rumbling baritone that spoke of dark gravel
roads, cheap whiskey, whispered threats and harsh cigarettes.
Then there was the sense of style: black. All black. All the time.
Most of all there was the attitude -- the famous photograph of the
ducktail-sporting star snarling at the camera, biting his lower lip to
stifle the obvious damnation, clutching his guitar with his left hand while
thrusting his right (the middle finger raised in proud defiance) menacingly
close to the photographer's lens.
COLD HARD CASH
Johnny Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs on more than 70 albums
during his 71 years. He remained active until the end -- he had already
recorded more than 50 tunes for a fifth volume of his "American
Recordings" scheduled for release next year -- and there are brilliant
moments from every era of his career.
"I'd die if I retire," he told Rolling Stone in 2002. "Like a shark
-- got to keep moving."
Faced with such a rich and voluminous legacy, where does the young
music fan start? Here are my choices for the five indispensable Cash
"Love, God, Murder" box set (Sony, 2000) -- Named for the
three central topics in all of Cash's music, this three-disc overview of
his Columbia recordings is a must-own and a great place to start in
exploring the singer's rich musical currents, from country to gospel to
"16 Biggest Hits" (Sony, 1999) -- Looking for a more focused
and concise best-of? Here it is, complete with all of the signature
hits, including "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Folsom Prison
Blues," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Man in Black."
"Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison"(Columbia, 1968) -- The audience
for this classic live album brought the best out of the man, and he
responded by singing every prison song he knew: "I Got Stripes," "The
Wall," "25 Minutes to Go," "Cocaine Blues" and his own title track.
"American 3: Solitary Man"(Universal, 2000) -- Arguably the
strongest of his American Recordings, the third installment in the
series includes the single best performance and most inspired cover
choice via Cash's rendition of the Death Row anthem "The Mercy Seat" by
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
"American IV: The Man Comes Around" (Universal, 2003) -- The
last new disc released in Cash's lifetime, the highlight of this set is
his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." It recently garnered seven Video
Music Award nominations, but in their boundless idiocy, MTV's honchos
gave it only one prize, for best cinematography. Justin Timberlake
himself seemed shocked and chagrined to win out over Cash for best male
No two ways about it: Johnny Cash was one of the coolest performers rock
'n' roll ever produced.
I say rock 'n' roll and not country because, while Cash obviously crossed
those genre boundaries and many others, his stance was pure punk. He may
have been a superstar, a legend, a household name and an icon, as the many
tributes in the wake of his death at age 71 on Friday made clear. But he
always remained an outsider, walking a line that was truly his own.
"Country music used to represent horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day,
family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separatism,
murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride,
humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy,
rowdiness, heartbreak, love, mother and God," he was famously quoted as
That's how he liked it, and that's how he always played it.
As a child, he worked beside his six siblings picking cotton in the
fields of his native Arkansas. It was back-breaking labor, and he was
horrified when he watched his brother Jack die after being hurt cutting
fence posts. He preferred to find a shady spot, listen to the radio and sing
along. By age 12, he was writing songs of his own.
As with many of the greatest American bluesmen, country stars, rockers
and rappers, music offered not only catharsis in troubled times, but a way
to something better.
Cash signed with Sun Records in 1955. He had already written one of his
most famous tunes, "Folsom Prison Blues," inspired by a documentary about
prisoners (with whom he would always identify) and featuring one of the
darkest and most menacing lines in rock history: "I shot a man in Reno just
to watch him die."
Encouraged by Sun founder Sam Phillips, Cash helped not only to
reinvigorate the staid world of country music, but to join in crafting the
blueprint for the nascent sound called rock 'n' roll with label mates Elvis
Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins (though there is considerable
debate over whether he was captured on tape jamming as part of the so-called
Unlike some of the first-generation rock heroes, he continued to enjoy
success into the 1960s, after he moved to California and signed with
Columbia Records. Co-written with the woman who would become his second
wife, June Carter Cash (who died at age 73 in May), he scored a major hit in
1963 with "Ring of Fire," a song that seemed to comment on his personal
turmoil: "I fell into a burning ring of fire."
He abused drugs and alcohol, and despite his moving testament to fidelity
in "I Walk the Line" ("I keep a close watch on this heart of mine"), his
first marriage fell apart. During an infamous gig in 1965, he violently
kicked out the footlights onstage at the Grand Ole Opry and was banned from
playing that Nashville institution. He was arrested seven times -- including
once when he tried to smuggle amphetamines across the Mexican border in his
guitar case -- and he later described himself as "a raging terror."
"Yes, my dad was crazy," daughter Rosanne Cash said. "He was the
prototypical rock star on the road."
In the late '60s, Cash found religion through his new love, June, a
daughter of country music's legendary Carter family, and he recorded the
classic "Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison," scoring a hit that outsold the
Beatles. One of the best live albums ever, the 1969 disc finds the singer in
his element, inspiring the outcasts of society without piously preaching to
them. He knew what it was like to be in their shoes.
"How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven
and hell," he said. "There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm
is no place for any man."
Cash remained a hero to young rockers for speaking out against the
Vietnam War, though he traveled to Southeast Asia and performed for the U.S.
troops. He chronicled his trip with June in the haunting "Singin' in Vietnam
Talkin' Blues." Another hit from this era, "A Boy Name Sue," offered ample
evidence of his wicked sense of humor.
"He is a character of truly biblical proportions, with a voice, all
wailing freight trains and thundering prairies, like the landscape of his
beloved America," Bono said when celebrating Cash's 70th birthday. (The two
worked together on U2's 1993 single "The Wanderer.") But the somber Old
Testament persona was clearly in large part an act.
Cash's friend Kris Kristofferson -- whom he joined along with Willie
Nelson and Waylon Jennings as part of the anti-"hat act" group the
Highwaymen -- described him in song as "a walking contradiction, partly
truth and partly fiction." But like all of the best rock personas, from
Elvis through Johnny Rotten up to Bono and Kurt Cobain, Cash's invented role
was a great fiction, and it was timeless in its appeal.
He proved this starting in 1994 when he linked up with producer Rick
Rubin (the man who brought us the Beastie Boys) to create the first of what
would become four volumes of "American Recordings" -- stark, minimal
collections that found Cash performing songs by a new generation of diverse
artists, including Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails.
Cash has said one of the songs he was proudest of was 2003's "The Man
Comes Around," the title track to his fourth album with Rubin, and his first
original contribution to those discs. "I spent more time on this song than
any I ever wrote," he wrote in the liner notes, portentously describing his
vision of Judgment Day.
"There's a man going 'round taking names/And he decides who to free and
who to blame," he sings. "Everybody won't be treated all the same/There will
be a golden letter reaching down/When the Man comes around."
Johnny Cash was the Man, and rock 'n' roll will never forget him.