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The Legend of Johnny Cash

by Zane Ewton

Johnny Cash stands as a mythical figure in American music. His life and his songs were always linked by the themes of death, love and God. The characters in a Johnny Cash song were taken to the extremes of those themes and sometimes you thought they might not come back. The murder who "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die", the lover spiraling down a burning ring of fire and the believer who asked "were you there when they crucified my lord?" Johnny Cash ruminated within these songs, becoming inseparable from the images.

The Man in Black weathered a dangerous life in the fast lane, strung out on amphetamines he crawled from the wreckage of countless vehicles and at his lowest crawled into a cave to die. 

Cash wasn't meant to die in that cave and was redeemed through a deepened spiritual connection and the support of his beloved wife, June Carter, musical royalty in her own right. Cash's career came full circle in the last years of his life, after steamrolling county and rockabilly in the 50's and 60's he lumbered through highs and lows as decades past into the 1990's where his American Recordings records brought his career full circle and resulted in arguably the most emotional statement of the 2000's with his cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt".

Born in 1932, Cash grew up in the cotton fields of Arkansas working alongside his parents and six siblings. At the age of 12, Cash (J.R. as he was known to family) lost his hero and older brother, Jack, in a horrific table saw accident. In a grisly moment, Cash's father showed him Jack's bloody clothes and explained how the accident happened. His father was a strange influence on Cash, a hard drinker he ultimately gave it up for the life of a preacher. The death of Jack had a profound effect on the Cash family, maybe something they never recovered from.

After working in an auto plant after leaving home Cash enlisted in the Air Force, serving during the Korean War. He started writing songs and purchased his first guitar while in the Air Force. Upon his release from active service he hooked up with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant landing an audition with Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records.

Cash and the Tennessee Two, as Grant and Perkins were billed, quickly released a succession of hits that have become classics. "Cry, Cry, Cry", "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" were released one after another, skyrocketing Cash to the top of the charts. His career stayed on top with the hits "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and "Five Feet High and Rising". By 1961 Cash's fast lifestyle and incredible drug intake began to take its toll as he left his wife and daughters, crawled from wrecked cars, pioneered the art of destroying hotel rooms and even started a forest fire.

The 1960's were an intense period for Cash including recording "Ring of Fire", maybe his best known song, which was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore as June's response to a burgeoning love affair between herself and Cash. The Grand Old Opry decided against inviting Cash back after he smashed each of the floor stage lights with his microphone stand. A divorce from his first wife left Cash free to pursue Carter and they two were married in the spring of 1968.

Still riddled by his addictions, Cash crawled into a cave near his home to lie down and die. The drugs had taken him so far and completely took control of his life. A moment of clarity led him out of the cave and into the arms of June who brought Cash into fundamentalist Christianity and out of addiction. He would feel the effects of his lifestyle throughout the rest of his life.

Cash enjoyed a spike in popularity after this dark time with his album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and the top ten hit "A Boy Named Sue." ABC also ran his television show for two years. Cash brought along several guests who were rarely seen on television such as Bob Dylan.

The 70's cooled for Cash as he started working with televangelist Billy Graham and campaigning for Native American rights. The decade ended with Cash becoming the youngest inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. After being passed around between record labels Cash teamed with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen.

While the joint venture was moderately successful on the charts all four men were proven touring commodities and stuck it out for three Highwaymen albums. The dawn of the 1990's found country music shunning Johnny Cash for newer faces and the record labels were ignoring his phone calls. New life came from an unlikely source. Rick Rubin, the producer of many platinum rap and metal acts pursued Cash to produce his next record. Rubin put one microphone in front of Cash and his guitar and came out the other side looking like a genius. The American Recordings and its three sequels rejuvenated Cash's career. He was now washed with critical praise and the love of the alternative rock crowd.

Health problems seemed to plague Cash through the last years of his life including a heart bypass and contracting Shy-Drager Syndrome (a nastier version of Parkinson's disease) which left Cash in the hospital for many days with little hope for recovery. He pulled through each time. After the critical acclaim of his cover of "Hurt" hurled him into the spotlight brighter than it had been for years June Carter passed away following complications from heart surgery. 

Cash's final recordings were done on a Sunday afternoon; titled My Mother's Hymn Book Cash sang songs pulled directly from an old dog-eared hymn book his mother had passed down. An air of peace marked the end of a life that was at times fast and furious, scarred by extremes but redeemed in the simplicity of life. Cash passed away from complications with diabetes four months after his wife. The circle is unbroken once again.

With the release of a Johnny Cash bio-pic looming near, we have been treated to a new retrospective of his career. The Legend of Johnny Cash is the first Cash hits disc to include his work with Rick Rubin. The biggest mistake here is that one disc just is not sufficient to accurately profile the long career of Johnny Cash. What is included here is essential Cash though. 

After being the focus of countless "Greatest hits" compilations that include one essential track and nine lesser knowns, The Legend of Johnny Cash is a great alternative. A recent box set with a similar name delves deeper into the classic tracks, but this is the only place you can find the Rubin produced material, something that deserves a disc on its own merit. 

The Legend of Johnny Cash is a nice little introduction to an artist who really needs no introduction and a good companion piece to the movie that traces his life.


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