Saturday, September 13, 2003

'Man in black' exits big stage

Johnny Cash leaves a timeless legacy to country music

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As a musical instrument, Johnny Cash's voice wasn't much. He had no range to speak of and could barely carry a tune. But by sheer force of personality, pure charisma and depth of soul, he turned that weakness into his greatest strength. He broke down every barrier in music to become one of the best, most beloved and most influential singers of the 20th century.

His career began in rock's first generation, part of Sun Records' "Million Dollar Quartet" - Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - and, a few weeks before he died Friday at 71 of complications from diabetes, he was a six-time nominee in the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards.

He was nominated for "Hurt," a video that will be played endlessly in coming days. It won only one MTV award, the rest predictably going to more contemporary artists like rappers 50 Cent, Eminem and Missy Elliott. Long after those winning clips are forgotten, "Hurt" will be played, one of the final testaments of a genuine American icon.

(Hear clips at

Possessing a power and grace that made his vocal limitations irrelevant, "Hurt" is pure Cash, even though it was written by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor.

Cash stood out from the Video Music Award pack, but that was business as usual for a man who never fit in, right from his first record.

He wasn't a rockabilly cat like his Sun labelmates. Instead he came to Memphis fresh off an Arkansas cotton farm, after a hitch in the Army. He wanted to be a gospel singer, but Sun owner Sam Phillips hoped to cast the young Cash as a Burl Ives-style commercial folksinger.

That homespun sound Phillips, Cash and producer Jack Clement crafted at Sun remained Cash's trademark for the rest of his career. Nothing fancy, no extra instruments or hot licks, this was minimalist country at its purest. It had nothing to do with the slick "countrypolitan" Nashville sound popular in the late '50s

[IMAGE] Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash perform Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" during the Dylan anniversary concert at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1992.
(Associated Press photo)
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That Zen-like approach leant a timeless quality to Cash's records and his Sun output, recorded between 1955 and 1958. They sound as fresh today as they did in the Eisenhower administration. It's no surprise that Cash became the youngest person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the first to be a member of both the country and rock halls of fame.

Cash was also a songwriter and wrote or co-wrote several of his biggest hits, notably "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." But his real genius lay in interpretation, picking songs that were right for him and making them his own.

Drug problems

The early '60s found Cash touring with a big, self-contained show that included his Sun colleague Carl Perkins. Like a lot of hard-touring country acts, Cash developed a habit for amphetamine pills, "uppers." He was arrested in 1965 and 1967, never doing any real jail time. But the Man in Black had an outlaw persona way out of proportion with his actual misdeeds. Maybe it was his line in "Folsom Prison Blues" - "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."

(Audio clips | Lyrics)
"Cry, Cry, Cry," 1955
"Folsom Prison Blues," 1956
"I Walk the Line," 1956
"Get Rhythm," 1956
"Next in Line," 1957
"Home of the Blues," 1957
"Give My Love to Rose," 1957
"Ballad of a Teenage Queen," 1958
"Big River," 1958
"Guess Things Happen That Way," 1958
"The Ways of a Woman in Love," 1958
"Don't Take Your Guns to Town," 1959
"I Got Stripes," 1959
"Five Feet High and Rising," 1959
"Tennessee Flat-Top Box," 1961
"Ring of Fire," 1963
"It Ain't Me, Babe," with June Carter, 1964
"Orange Blossom Special," 1965
"Jackson," with June Carter, 1967
"Daddy Sang Bass," 1968
"A Boy Named Sue," 1969
"If I Were a Carpenter," with June Carter Cash, 1970
"What is Truth," 1970
"Sunday Morning Coming Down," 1970
"Man in Black," 1971
"A Thing Called Love," 1972
"If I Had a Hammer," with June Carter, 1972
"Ragged Old Flag," 1974
"One Piece at a Time," 1976
"There Ain't No Good Chain Gang," with Waylon Jennings, 1978
"I Will Rock and Roll With You," 1979
"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," 1979
"Desperados Waiting for a Train," 1985
"Highwayman," with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, 1985
"Hurt," 2002
That song became the inspiration for one of the seminal records of the '60s, 1968's At Folsom Prison. It was one of the albums of the time, a universal LP that you could find in any self-respecting record collection, right alongside Sgt. Pepper's and Are You Experienced? His follow-up, Live at San Quentin, was also huge, and in 1969 Cash sold a phenomenal 6.5 million albums.

That same year, he parlayed his crossover success into a network variety show on ABC-TV, using it as a platform to showcase such varied artists as Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Neil Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Clapton, people you otherwise wouldn't see on TV in those days.

The power of network television helped Cash cement his position as country music's biggest crossover superstar. It also helped bring out the alt-folk movement of the late '60s and early '70s that included Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and one of Cash's personal favorites, Kris Kristofferson, who provided Cash with another signature song, "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

Cash teamed with Kristofferson in his last major Cincinnati appearance, a 1995 Riverbend concert by the Highwaymen, country's dream team of Cash, Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Cash had been there before, doing a Riverbend show of his own in 1988.

But his most lasting work in Cincinnati was done in the 1980 TV movie The Pride of Jess Hallam. Cash, who occasionally acted in films, starred with Brenda Vaccaro and Eli Wallach, playing the title role, an illiterate Kentucky coal miner who learns to read after his wife dies. The movie, shot in part at Walnut Hills High School, is available on VHS.

Out of the spotlight

The past few years saw Cash, suffering from the neurological deterioration of Parkinson's disease, become something of a recluse. He rarely made public appearances, but retained a high profile in a series of acclaimed albums for Rick Rubin's American label.

The most recent, American IV: The Man Comes Around, features "Hurt." He was recording American V when he died Friday.

Cash's final work followed the bare-bones template of his early recordings. That minimalist accompaniment brought Cash's voice right up front. While his vocal imperfections only deepened with age, his sepulchral voice still rang truer than anyone else's.

One of the biggest trends in music today is "Americana" music, a boundary-breaking mix of country, rock, folk, blues and gospel. But that's the hybrid Cash had done from the first day he set foot in that Memphis recording studio almost 50 years ago.

He began his career wanting to be a gospel singer and at the end of his life, he was still preaching. His singing may have faltered, his pitch may have wavered, but Cash's voice was true right to the end. No one ever sang with such complete integrity and conviction.

He's featured on an all-star tribute to country music's Louvin Brothers, out on Sept. 30. On "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus," he reads scripture, every word ringing with total authority.

No one thought Cash would last long after his losses this year. His wife, June Carter Cash, the woman who helped him get off amphetamines, died in May. In July, the man who gave him his start, Sam Phillips, died.

Cash was too sick to videotape a message for the Phillips funeral. But he provided an audio eulogy for the memorial service. His words for his old friend could well serve as his own epitaph. "I wish God's blessing for you, a perfect, peaceful rest. And may the angels surround you."

Cash is survived by four daughters from his first marriage to singer to Vivian Liberto, Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy and Tara. He and June Carter had a son, John Carter Cash.

The funeral service will be private. A public memorial will be at a later date.


Larry Nager's tribute, plus vote for your favorite Cash song
Latest news, slideshow, remembrances at Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean
Johnny Cash Web site

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