The Man in Black was a country icon who blended rock, folk, gospel and blues into his own distinctive style. He was known for his deep voice, rebellious image and social activism.
Johnny Cash was one of the most imposing and influential figures in post-World War II country music. With his deep, resonant baritone and spare percussive guitar, he had a basic, distinctive sound. Cash didn’t sound like Nashville, nor did he sound like honky tonk or rock & roll. He sang songs of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption, drawing from his personal experiences and challenges as a man, a husband, a father and a rebel. He also sang about the working poor and social and political issues, expanding the scope of country music. He was known for his free prison concerts, his diverse musical collaborations, and his trademark all-black stage wardrobe, which earned him the nickname the “Man in Black”. He was one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. His genre-spanning music embraced country, rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel sounds. This crossover appeal earned him the rare honor of being inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
Early Life and Rise to Fame
Cash’s rise to fame and success in the 1950s and 1960s was remarkable and unprecedented for a country singer. He began his musical career in 1954, after serving four years in the Air Force, by forming a band with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, known as the Tennessee Two (later Tennessee Three). He auditioned for Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who signed him in 1955. His first single, “Hey Porter”, was a modest hit, but his second, “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, reached number 14 on the Billboard country chart. His breakthrough came with his third single, “I Walk the Line”, which topped the country chart for six weeks and crossed over to the pop chart, reaching number 17. Cash became one of the most popular artists on Sun Records, along with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. He also became a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
Cash developed a distinctive sound and style, characterized by his deep voice, simple guitar accompaniment, and train-like rhythms. He sang songs of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption, drawing from his personal experiences and challenges as a man, a husband, a father and a rebel. He also sang about the working poor and social and political issues, expanding the scope of country music. Some of his most famous songs from this period include “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring of Fire”, “Get Rhythm”, and “Man in Black”. He also recorded duets with his future wife June Carter, such as “Jackson” and “It Ain’t Me Babe”, and collaborated with other artists, such as Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins and the Statler Brothers. He received numerous awards and honors, such as four Grammy Awards (including two for his duets with Carter), seven Country Music Association Awards (including one for Entertainer of the Year in 1969), and five Academy of Country Music Awards (including one for Male Vocalist of the Year in 1967). He also became one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide.
Activism and Prison Reform
One of Cash’s most groundbreaking and influential works was his live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, which was recorded in front of an audience of inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Cash had been interested in recording a performance at a prison since his 1955 song “Folsom Prison Blues”, which became popular among prisoners who wrote to him requesting him to perform at their prisons. Cash finally got the opportunity in 1967, when Bob Johnston, his new producer at Columbia Records, agreed to his idea. Cash performed two shows at Folsom Prison, backed by June Carter, Carl Perkins, and the Tennessee Three. The album consists of 15 songs from the first show and two from the second. The songs included some of his hits, such as “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”, as well as some new songs, such as “Cocaine Blues” and “The Long Black Veil”.
Cash also performed “Greystone Chapel”, a song written by inmate Glen Sherley, who was in the audience. Cash connected with the prisoners and the public with his honest and empathetic songs, and received a standing ovation from the inmates. The album was a huge success, reaching number one on the country chart and number 13 on the pop chart. It also received critical acclaim and revitalized Cash’s career. The album also challenged the stereotypes and stigma of the prison system, and raised awareness of the issues faced by inmates. It also expanded his audience and influence with his popular television show The Johnny Cash Show, which featured diverse musical guests and genres.
Awards and Achievements
Cash’s legacy and influence on country music and culture are undeniable and enduring. He continued to record and perform until his death in 2003, despite his health problems and personal losses. He collaborated with contemporary artists such as U2, Bob Dylan, and Nine Inch Nails, and covered songs by various genres and styles. He also received numerous awards and honors, such as the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, and multiple posthumous Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, making him one of the few artists to be honored in all three.
He inspired generations of musicians and fans with his talent, courage and authenticity. His songs have been covered by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Johnny Marr, and Sheryl Crow. His life and music have been portrayed in books, films, documentaries, and musicals, such as the biopic Walk the Line (2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. His image and style have also become iconic and influential, especially his trademark all-black attire, which he wore as a symbol of solidarity with the oppressed and downtrodden. He was known as the “Man in Black”, but he was also so much more. He was Johnny Cash, the legend of country music.
Johnny Cash was one of the most imposing and influential figures in post-World War II country music. He was born in a poor farming community in Arkansas, and joined the Air Force in 1950. He co-founded a band following his discharge, and within a few years Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two had scored hits with songs like “Walk the Line”. Cash’s career was nearly derailed in the 1960s by a serious substance-abuse problem, but his marriage to June Carter and acclaimed album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison put him back on track. He also expanded his audience and influence with his popular television show The Johnny Cash Show, which featured diverse musical guests and genres. He continued to record and perform until his death in 2003, despite his health problems and personal losses.
He once said: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he’s a victim of the times.” He also sang: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds / Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” These words capture his spirit and vision of staying true to himself and his values, no matter what. He was the Man in Black, but he was also so much more. He was Johnny Cash, the legend of country music.
Johnny Cash: February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003