Johnny Cash's Birthday: 10 Reasons to Celebrate His Legend
Johnny Cash's Birthday: 10 Reasons to Celebrate His Legend
J.R. Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, on Feb. 26, 1932, the fourth of seven children to Ray and Carrie Cash. It wasn't until he signed with Sun Records in 1955 that he adopted the stage name of Johnny Cash. Now, six decades later -- and nine years after his death -- Johnny Cash is nothing less than a national treasure whose visage would arguably be right at home on Mount Rushmore. To commemorate what would have been his 80th birthday, The Boot counts down 10 of the most important aspects of Johnny Cash's life and career -- the reasons he was and will always remain an American icon.
10. 'Man in Black'
For Johnny, basic black wasn't just a fashion statement, it became a personal and political stance as well. In March 1971, just as his network TV show was canceled, Johnny released an album and single titled 'Man in Black.' The lyrics explained his decision to dress in the dark color as a way of drawing attention to social injustice ("I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town"). With pointed references to the drug culture and the Vietnam War, both raging at the time, the tune was a Top 5 country hit and a minor hit on the pop chart.
Run-ins with authority figures may not be amusing, but when it comes to Johnny's reputation as a troublemaker, the truth is a much different story than the legend that dogged him throughout his life. Perhaps because of his captive audiences during his shows at prisons, and also due to an occasional dust-up with the law, many believe Johnny himself actually served prison time. Not so, although he did spend some time in front of judges. In 1965, the singer's truck caught fire triggering a California wildfire. "I didn't do it, my truck did," he told the judge. "And it's dead so you can't question it." That same year, he was arrested in Starkville, Miss. The charge: picking wildflowers.
7. 'Ring of Fire'
Having been fired from the Grand Ole Opry for stomping the footlights on the Ryman Auditorium stage after a performance, Johnny was no stranger to unique forms of musical expression. But when it came to 'Ring of Fire,' written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore (and first recorded by June's sister, Anita), nothing expressed the song's theme of love's healing power quite like ... mariachi horns? True, Nashville had been experimenting with slicker, pop-oriented instrumentation by the time this was released in 1963, but country music this far south of the border was new, and exciting, territory. Dwight Yoakam and Blondieare among the acts who've since covered it.
6. The Concept Albums
Beginning in 1959, Johnny made a regular practice of releasing albums that would explore something of a specific theme. 'Songs of Our Soil' was the first such LP, veering from the rockabilly and country tunes he'd been recording and relying more on folk-oriented tunes -- many exploring themes of loss or death. Other titles among his concept albums included 'Ride This Train' (subtitled 'A Stirring Travelogue of America in Song and Story'), 'Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,' 'Ballads of the True West,' and 'From Sea to Shining Sea.'
Taking its title from Johnny's first No. 1 country hit, 'Walk the Line' hit the big screen just two years after the world bid goodbye to Johnny and June. An Oscar-winning performance by Nashville's own Reese Witherspoon and an Oscar-nominated turn as the larger-than-life legend himself by Joaquin Phoenix, 'Walk the Line' was a vivid, unforgettable portrayal of Johnny's turbulent younger years, taking him from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the world stage. Interestingly, in 1970, Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld starred in an otherwise-unrelated film titled 'I Walk the Line,' which featured the song prominently.
3. 'Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison'
To pinpoint the origin of the legend that Johnny had spent time in prison, one probably need look no further than this 1968 live performance and a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin Prison. Johnny first performed inside prison walls at the request of inmates in 1957, and had appeared at Folsom Prison two years before this landmark album was recorded. (He also played San Quentin on New Year's Day 1958, a show attended by inmate and future country legend Merle Haggard.) Johnny, his band, the Tennessee Three, June Carter, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins recorded two shows for an enthusiastic crowd on January 13. Since its initial release, the album has been reissued with bonus tracks and a DVD. 'At San Quentin' followed a year later.
2. 'The Johnny Cash Show'
For two decades, variety shows dominated television, with a mixture of big Hollywood stars, comedy sketches, musical acts and other forms of entertainment. But when Johnny Cash debuted his own series on ABC in the summer of 1969, the focus was on music. Top country acts shared the Ryman Auditorium stage, where the show was taped, with a diverse roster of superstars including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and the Monkees. Lasting two seasons, the series was among those canceled by the networks in attempt to reach a younger, less rural audience. A best-of DVD collection is currently available -- and well worth investigating.
Devastating and yet somehow oddly comforting at the same time, this version of a 1994 Nine Inch Nails tune penned by Trent Reznor may have come farther out of left field than any other song Johnny covered throughout his six-decade career, yet it fit the Man in Black perfectly. An unsettling epitaph made even more heart-wrenching thanks to the unforgettable music video that captured Johnny -- and June -- in the last months of their lives, 'Hurt' showed him at his most vulnerable and we all related to it, perhaps because in losing him we also felt more vulnerable, unable to imagine a world void of his powerful presence. The blessing, of course, is the abundance of material he's left us to remember him by. But if he'd only ever recorded one song or made a single video, this might have been enough to earn his status as a national treasure -- and a global icon.