By Tony BonyataUnder most circumstances it would be hard to feel a sense of loss for a man who would openly admit that he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" or that after taking a shot of cocaine, he shot his woman down. But when that man is Johnny Cash, a larger-than-life legend in country music that has lived a long hard life as both bona-fide sinner and psuedo-saint, the recent loss was unavoidable.
When news first broke last Friday that Cash had succumbed to complications due to diabetes at the age of 71 no one was surprised. Saddened, yes, but certainly not shocked. That's because the press has been documenting his decline in health for the last few years. With multiple trips to the hospital for autonomic neuropathy (a disease of the nervous system) and pneumonia, Cash has cheated death more times than any good man has a right to. But the final straw came when his partner and soul mate in life, wife June Carter Cash, died earlier this year.
June was a strong woman who was probably the reason that Johnny lasted as long as he did. He still had his music, which up until his death he was still continuing to create, but without the loving care of his wife, he certainly would've succumbed to substance abuse long ago. Cash would attest to this in his 1997 autobiography where he admitted, "June said she knew me - knew the kernel of me, deep inside me, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and shellfishes, and knew my loneliness. If she found my pills, she flushed them down the toilet. And find them she did: she searched for them, relentlessly."
While Cash may have actually never had the deep stains of blood on his hands, he certainly seemed to know more than he should have about killing and dying. With a hillbilly thug [thanks for the color, Mr. Tarantino] mentality Cash spoke of robbers, liars and murderers with an almost all too crystal clear memory. But with a broad knowledge of both American folklore and the Good Book also in his vast canon, Cash also sang the praises of our land, its people and the Lord, as well as the penance to be paid for the sins of man.
Cash was born and raised in the hills of Arkansas, where he later worked along with his sharecropper parents on their cotton farm. He was first introduced to music on the family's front porch, where they all gathered around and sang hymns and traditional folk songs. Around the same time he also fell in love with the country and gospel songs that emitted from his uncle's radio. This would be the foundation for what Cash would build his career on.
Cash bought his first guitar in Germany while stationed in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, where he started a band with a few friends called The Barbarians. After his time in the service was over he relocated to Memphis where he was determined to make it in the music business.
The young musician was soon signed to Sun Records by Sam Phillips, the man responsible for first recording Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash along with his Tennessee Two - guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant - recorded and released their first single "Cry Cry Cry" for Sun and then began touring with Elvis and other Sun artists. In 1956 his single "I Walk The Line" became a national hit and would be the start of Cash's burgeoning popularity, leading to shows at Nashville's Grand Old Opry, worldwide tours and even starring roles in motion pictures and performances at prisons (two of which were well documented on his powerful live LPs Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin).
Multiple awards followed from the likes of the Country Music & the Rock and Roll Hall of Fames, among many others. Cash married June Carter in the late '60s (June was a direct descendant of the seminal country group The Carter Family whose music Cash idolized during his youth after hearing it on the radio). Drugs came in and out of Johnny's life, with June acting as a constant deterrent and ultimate savior.
While Cash's music may have fallen out favor during the '80s, it was when he teamed up with record producer Rick Rubin in 1994 for the first of his American Recordings albums that would not only find the musician in a true return-to-form - with a hauntingly stark acoustic approach - but he also gained a whole new audience of younger fans in search of an honest form of American roots music.
Cash and Rubin have released four American Recordings albums and were recently busy working on the fifth installment to this brilliant body of work before Johnny passed away. What has gained Cash the most attention recently, however, are not his recordings but, surprisingly, a music video. On director Mark Romanek's stirring video for Cash's version of Trent Reznor's song "Hurt," the viewer is faced by a shaky old man seated behind a piano in a decrepit room (part of the closed down "House of Cash" museum). During this harrowing delivery the stench of death hangs heavy over Cash as June looks down from the stairs in a sorrowful state as if saying goodbye right there. As the song slowly builds to a climax, short vignettes of Cash as a young viral man - hopping a train, playing onstage to thousands and contemplating the past as he visits one of his old broken down homes, are shown. Feelings of remorse, guilt and redemption unfold throughout, making for the most powerful statement the music video medium has ever witnessed; a statement of a man reflecting on what he's accomplished, as well as what he's lost, as he now stands at the threshold of death's door.
"Jesus, gonna make up my dyin' bed," goes the traditional American folk song from the old South, and with The Man In Black now past that threshold and laid to rest next to his soul mate, its heartening to know that, just as in life, June is there waiting to tuck him in.
Return to Reviews
Return to Menu