Off the Charts

Johnny Cash: American Icon

Johnny Cash is part of America’s DNA. In a way, he was a one-man melting pot. His rich bass voice could praise the Almighty as effectively as it could tell a tale of murder or make you laugh. He crossed the genres of country, rockabilly, folk, gospel, and rock and roll, favoring songs that amplified the downtrodden.

Over the course of six decades, Cash made over 50 studio albums, and that doesn’t include his many collaborations with other artists or his famous live albums. Obviously, I can only give a glimpse here of the mountain of treasures in the Cash vault.

Born in Arkansas in 1932, he was raised in a poor family with six siblings. Music was an outlet to accompany work on the cotton fields and a way to entertain each other at night and worship on Sundays. When he returned home in 1954 after a stint in the Air Force, he relocated to Memphis, where he started playing with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant as the Tennessee Three. Once he’d signed with Sun Records, they changed it to Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. No question who the star was.

His first album came out in 1957, produced by Sun founder Sam Phillips. Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! includes his first recordings of songs that would become huge fan favorites, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”

“So Doggone Lonesome” is an example of his early songwriting. It also shows the signature sound of the Tennessee Two (Grant on upright bass and Perkins on Fender Esquire electric guitar), the so-called “freight train” rhythmic pattern. There was nothing slick about the arrangement, but that voice and that delivery – this was a young man who could tell a story in song.

 

Although he was a prolific songwriter, Cash made it a point to collect songs he loved by other artists. The 1960 album Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams on Sun Records pays tribute to one of country music’s founding fathers.

Cash’s low voice and contemplative style are completely different from Williams’, but the respect he holds for the older man’s music is unmistakable. Here’s his version of Williams’ hit “You Win Again.” The session musicians aren’t credited on the album, but it’s likely Grant and Perkins among others; the twangy barroom sound they cook up evokes country’s earliest days.

 

Cash’s first US gold record was All Aboard the Blue Train in 1962. He did it again with I Walk the Line in 1964. Between those was Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963), which got some traction with its single, “Busted.”

More interesting on that record are songs where Cash takes on the Black point of view, particularly “John Henry” and the a cappella “Another Man Done Gone.” Strangely, writing credit for the latter is given to John and Alan Lomax, although this father and son ethnomusicology team only collected the song from chain gang hard-laborers. It was memorably recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1957 on the LP Swing Dat Hammer. Cash’s version includes verses from the Lomax tapes that Belafonte left out.

 

One of the essential elements of Cash’s style is gospel music, particularly the straightforward rhythms and melodies of white Southern gospel. He was strongly nudged in this direction while working with the Carter Family singers, who’d made their name singing gospel and mountain folk music. Cash applied that sound to songs on other topics, and some good examples can be found on Happiness Is You (1966).

The title track is a love song that Cash wrote with June Carter, already the love of his life while his first marriage was still on its last legs. Carter can be heard singing backup with her sisters. The folk-like simplicity of the tune and arrangement is typical of the songs they created together. W.S. Holland’s ambling drum pattern keeps things low-key.

 

The 1960s were an endless struggle with drug addiction for Cash, but, with help from Carter (who agreed to marry him if he got clean) and a spiritual reawakening, he got his life back together by the end of the decade. The 1970s started strong commercially, with several solid hit albums, but soon Cash’s success started to fall off. Ragged Old Flag (1974) peaked at No. 16, which was low by his standards.

With backing by the likes of Carl Perkins and Earl Scruggs, this album has a classic Cash sound. Again the songwriter gives voice to the voiceless: “Please Don’t Let Me Out” expresses the point of view of a long-time prisoner who no longer knows how to live in the world and is afraid to be released.

 

Cash’s only other real success in the 1970s was One Piece at a Time (1976), which made it to No. 2. The album Gone Girl (1978) didn’t chart at all, but that’s no reflection of its quality.

The most interesting track on this album is “No Expectations” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Cash takes it at a bright, energetic clip, much different from the sad, bluesy Rolling Stones original. It’s a complete re-imagining of the song, and it works.

 

Nothing charted for him in the 1980s. Both rock and country were changing so drastically that it’s hardly surprising he couldn’t find his place with younger listeners. Rainbow (1985) was his last solo album for Columbia, which decided he was no longer worth their investment.

His knack for speaking for the underdog continues with “Unwed Fathers,” a song by Bobby Braddock and John Prine empathizing with a young woman stuck with an unwanted pregnancy. Marty Stuart’s mandolin provides delicate texture.

 

During ten years recording with Mercury, he still couldn’t regain his foothold. Cash had ceased to be relevant to the establishment recording industry. But among those who still believed in him was Rick Rubin, founder of American Recordings, who approached Cash about recording some covers. Anything Cash wanted, as long as the music was American. The resulting 1994 album, American Recordings, gained attention from critics for its stark production values and Cash’s raw interpretations and unusual repertoire.

It turned into a six-volume series, the last issue coming out posthumously. The track that really captured the world’s imagination, partly for its passionate video, was “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. That was on American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), and there are untold riches worth exploring in all the volumes. For example, take this thoughtful interpretation of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” from the second volume, American II: Unchained (1996). Petty himself sings and plays on the album.

 

It was after Unchained won the Grammy for Best Country Album that Rubin took out a full-page ad in Billboard featuring a famous photo of Cash flipping his middle finger, sarcastically thanking “the Nashville establishment and country radio for your support.”

Cash died in 2003 at the age of 71, only four months after June Carter passed away. In the last year of his life, he kept on recording for Rubin even as diabetes made him weaker. Rubin finally released the last of the songs in 2010 as American VI: Ain’t No Grave. One of those performances is his heartbreaking rendition of “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” by Tom Paxton. The voice may be thin and the pitch wobbly, but the delivery drips with calm wisdom and deep emotion.

 

During his lifetime, Johnny Cash sold over 90 million records, won countless awards, and was inducted into all the major music-themed halls of fame. His seems like one of those rare legacies that truly will live forever.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.