Country music legend Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” died Friday morning at
age 71 of respiratory failure, just three days after being discharged from
Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, following a bout of pancreatitis.
“Johnny died due to complications from diabetes, which resulted in respiratory
failure,” manager Lou Robin said in a statement.
A hard-living rebel who nevertheless won widespread acclaim for his music, Cash was a solitary figure in pop culture: a devoutly religious man who wrote tales of vengeful murder and mayhem, and a lifelong radical with a rock and roll heart who never had time for the polite country music establishment.
The author of more than 400 songs, yielding 100 top-40 country hits as well
as dozens of crossover pop hits, Cash was the multifaceted voice of the
American experience. He spoke for the condemned man and his redeemer, the downtrodden coal miner, the hopeless romantic, the junkie and the righteous man.
With songs that often relied solely on his imposing baritone voice and spare,
percussive acoustic guitar, Cash blurred the line between country and rock,
running afoul of the Nashville orthodoxy with his dangerous, rebellious spirit
and teaching generations of rockers about the importance of emotional honesty
in storytelling. From his second single, 1956’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash
displayed a dark edge that was hard to match in country or rock, growling in his
famous, deep-thunder deadpan, “I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die.”
It was that signature mix of outlaw spirit and religious conviction that
helped make Cash a towering influence spanning generations and genres, from
country to punk, rock to folk and gospel, the ’50s to the ’00s. Cash was a ragged
example of the power of music to cross boundaries, winning young recruits over
the past decade via his Rick Rubin-produced series of albums, which introduced Cash’s booming voice to a new generation of fans. Manager Robin said Thursday that 11-time Grammy winner Cash had been planning to fly to Los Angeles next week to complete work on his follow-up to 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around.
Though he was too ill to attend, Cash’s legend loomed large at this year’s
MTV Video Music Awards, as the haunting video for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song
“Hurt” was nominated for six Moonmen, winning one for Best Cinematography.
Cash had been in poor health for several years and suffered from the nervous-system
disease autonomic neuropathy, which rendered him susceptible to respiratory
disorders and required frequent stays in the hospital for bouts of pneumonia.
His wife of more than 30 years, country singer June Carter Cash, died in May at age 73 of
complications from heart surgery (see “Country Star June Carter Cash, Wife Of Johnny Cash, Dies At 73″ ).
Before he became known as the Man in Black, before he recorded such
legendary songs as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire,”
before he was the first person inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Johnny Cash was just John R. Cash.
Born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash was one of six children
born to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash. As a child, Cash worked in the cotton
fields alongside his parents and siblings, learning folk songs and hymns from his
mother. After graduating high school, he left Arkansas for a job at an automotive plant in
Detroit. His restless spirit moving him on, Cash joined the Air Force at the outset of the Korean War and was shipped out to Landsberg, Germany. It was there that he purchased his first guitar and began writing songs out of boredom, putting together his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians.
Cash was discharged in 1954 and married his first wife, Vivian Liberto, with
whom he settled in Memphis. He worked as an appliance salesman by day and
played in a country trio by night, taking odd jobs as he attempted to break
into the music business. His moonlighting paid off later that year when he landed
an audition as a solo artist for Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Though
Cash had hoped to record a gospel album for Phillips, the man who would soon
discover Elvis, Phillips asked Cash to bring him a more commercial song. Phillips booked
the young singer into his studio that next spring to record the country tune
“Hey Porter.” Though that song failed to chart, his Sun follow-up, “Cry Cry
Cry,” hit #14 on the Billboard top 20 and was followed by top-five country
singles such as “So Doggone Lonesome” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Cash landed his first #1 single in 1955 with “I Walk the Line,” which stayed
on the charts for 43 weeks and sold more than 2 million copies. He achieved
a lifelong dream in 1957 when he was asked to perform at the Grand Ole Opry,
where he turned heads by taking the stage dressed all in black, bucking the
then-standard country outfit of rhinestone-studded duds. Though Cash would later
say the move was more economical than sartorial — black was the only thing he
and his band had that matched — the statement was loud and strong: Johnny Cash
plays by his own rules.
In 1957 he became the first Sun Records artist to release a full album,
Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar. But when the label continued
to refuse his request to release a gospel album, or increase his royalties,
Cash jumped to Columbia Records in 1958 and released a succession of hit albums
over the next 10 years.
He hit pay dirt immediately with the top-five single “All Over Again,” and went on
to record such iconic country staples as “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I
Got Stripes” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” Cash also finally got to release
his gospel album, Hymns by Johnny Cash, in 1959, the first of a series
of themed albums he’d release over the next 15 years featuring everything from
gospel to children’s music, patriotic American songs and odes to native Americans.
Despite the hit singles, his popularity among both folk and country fans and
appearances on such mainstream programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The
Tonight Show,” Cash was falling apart. Playing up to 300 nights a year took its
toll on his marriage. And the hard life on the road drove Cash
to abuse alcohol and amphetamines to keep up with the relentless pace of
recording and performing. The hit singles began to dry up and Cash abandoned his
family to move to New York.
He hit the top of the country charts again in 1963 thanks to a song that
would become one of his signature tunes, “Ring of Fire.” The tale of an
all-consuming love was co-written by his frequent touring partner June Carter, the
granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, the most influential
group in country history. His comeback was short-lived, however, as a
pill-popping Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas, in 1965 for trying to sneak amphetamines across the Mexican border in his guitar case. Later that year, after the Grand Ole Opry wouldn’t let him perform, Cash kicked out the footlights at the hall, further
cementing his outlaw status. The meltdown was followed by an overdose. He and
Vivian divorced in 1966 and Cash moved back to Nashville, where a recently
divorced Carter helped him kick his drug habit.
He converted to fundamentalist Christianity and he and Carter were married in 1968,
beginning a period of intense recording and renewed commercial success
courtesy of a pair of gold-selling live albums recorded at Folsom and San Quentin
prisons. Cash was given his own network variety show on ABC in 1969, “The Johnny
Cash Show,” on which the singer booked a wide variety of musical acts, from
Bob Dylan to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell to jazz legend Louis Armstrong. By
1969, he became the best-selling artist alive, surpassing even the Beatles.
Forever trapped in limbo between his religious convictions and his untamed heart,
Cash continued to hopscotch between recording gospel standards, love songs and
tales of deadly revenge, best summed up by a three-CD box set of his music
released in 2000 entitled, Love, God, Murder, which paired ” ’Cause I Love
You” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with “Orleans Parish Prison,” “Cocaine
Blues” and “The Long Black Veil.”
In 1980, a then 48-year-old Cash became the youngest living inductee into the
Country Music Hall of Fame. He formed the Highwaymen in 1985 with his pals
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, with whom he released
three albums over the next 10 years. With his album sales declining throughout
the ’80s, Cash found himself at a crossroads by decade’s end. Though still a
solid concert draw, his commercial prospects dwindled as pop-oriented country
artists such as Garth Brooks rose to prominence. Cash was inducted into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.
He signed with producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label in 1994,
releasing the stark collection of acoustic songs American Recordings and winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for his mix of originals and
covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, Danzig and Tom Waits. His
second American album, 1996’s Unchained, featured Cash backed by Tom
Petty & the Heartbreakers, tackling originals and country classics by Jimmie
Rodgers and the Louvin Brothers, as well as songs by Soundgarden and Beck. That LP won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1997. That same year Cash began to cut back
his live performances as his health began to fail.
Cash won another Grammy in 2001 for his cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary
Man,” from 2000’s American III: Solitary Man. His health in a fragile
state, Cash continued to record, but rarely performed. He was dealt a harsh blow
in May when June died, robbing him of his longtime muse and spiritual
companion. Per her request, Cash was back in the studio three days after June’s
funeral, working on material for his fifth American Recordings album. A five-disc box
set featuring three discs of previously unreleased songs recorded by Rubin
and Cash as well as a compilation of their best material, tentatively titled
Unearthed, is slated for release around Christmas.
Speaking with MTV News’ Kurt Loder prior to the VMAs, Cash retained his
indomitable spirit and fearless outlook. At peace with his destiny, he refused to the end to let anyone tell him how to walk the line.
“You can’t let people delegate to you what you should do when it’s coming
from way in here,” he said, tapping his heart. “I wouldn’t let anybody influence
me into thinking I was doing the wrong thing by singing about death, hell and
drugs. ’Cause I’ve always done that. And I always will.”
Cash said he sensed the end was near, but that, too, was not to be feared. “I
expect my life to end pretty soon,” he said. “I’m 71 years old. I have great
faith, though. I have unshakable faith.” Faith, he said, and no regrets.
“I used to,” he said. “But I forgave myself. When God forgave me, I figured
I’d better do it, too.”
To learn more about the infamous Man in Black, check out Kurt Loder’s “Johnny Cash: Original Gangsta.”
[This story was updated on 09.12.03 at 12:32 p.m. ET]