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The haggard and exhausted shell of 1993

Johnny Cash

On a hot summer day in May, 1993, the haggard and exhausted shell of what was once a great man, and indeed an American icon, sat motionless in a church pew, in the midst of bidding goodbye to not only his recently deceased wife, but also his soul mate and the center of his world. In his lifetime, this man had been a friend to presidents and preachers, sinners and saints, and in his own right had traversed from the pinnacle of superstardom to the depths of anonymity and back again- in the process, securing his place in the history of American music as a living legend, if his current sad state could be considered living at all. The man was born as John R. Cash, the son of humble sharecroppers from Dyess, Arkansas (Cash), but would in time be known as Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. That very metamorphosis, and the twists and turns along the way, are the focus of this research. Ultimately, what will be revealed is as much as story of the pleasures and pitfalls of celebrity as it is a tale of the human experience, of sin and redemption, and the endless quest of the human soul to attain purity.

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Great Man from Humble Beginnings

The southern United States of the 1930s was indicative of the general economic climate of the rest of the nation. Mired in the Great Depression, the mostly agricultural population of the southern U.S. lived the hand to mouth existence of the typical farming family. This was felt even more acutely by the sharecropper- a farmer who, lacking land of his own, would cultivate a plot of land that belonged to someone else, harvest the crop, sell it and pay a portion of the proceeds back to the actual owner of the acreage, which made for a very hard way to feed a family at that dark chapter in the American economy. It was into one of these families that John R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932 to Ray Cash, a backsliding Baptist sharecropper whose emotions often ranged from despair to rage in the blink of an eye and his wife Carrie, a devout woman who worked hard, prayed even harder, and loved their newborn son with a fiery devotion (Streissguth).

As JR, as he would come to be called by his parents and siblings, grew to the age where he could, he was pressed into service as a cotton picker, spending long hours in the blazing sun, separating fluffy white pieces of cotton from long, sharp thorns that tore his young flesh and drove him to dream of a better life. One of the diversions from this daily drudgery was music- in the fields, JR, under his mother’s tutelage and much to his father’s disdain, learned to harmoniously sing the hymns that he learned in church. JR would later recall that his mother said to him at an early age, “God’s got his hand on you, boy” (Cash, JR, p.22), a memory that would be forever etched in his mind and carry him through the dark days that his future life would often bring.

Time swiftly passed, and JR Cash grew into a strong young man, graduating from high school and looking toward a better future. As a means of escaping the grinding poverty that epitomized his youth, Cash entered the working world, and eventually, joined the U.S. Air Force, which took him around the world in the service of his country. It was during one of his stateside interludes that he met the young lady named Vivian Liberto at a Memphis, Tennessee skating rink. In 1954, Vivian would become his first wife (Turner) and lead to his securing of a job as a in Memphis upon the completion of his military service.

JR Cash Becomes “The Man in Black”

JR became a salesman in Memphis as a means of supporting his new wife, but he loved music, writing some songs, singing and playing an acoustic guitar in a succession of local bands that never seemed to amount too much. Being in Memphis in the mid-1950s, Cash witnessed first hand the rise of a local truck driver named Elvis Presley to first regional and then national fame. Some theorize that this example led Cash to persevere in his musical pursuits (Carnes).

According to Carl Perkins, an early band mate of Cash’s, lifelong friend and a star in his own right, is probably the single most important catalyst to the occurrence that would transform JR Cash, struggling musician into Johnny Cash, rising star. As Perkins’ account of the story goes, JR was rehearsing some pieces of a song he was working on with Perkins’ help, but it seemed to be missing something. In the course of the work session, Perkins spoke casually to Cash about the temptations of being a musician on the road, and warned Cash about the loose women who would try to lure him into adultery. To this warning, Cash is said to have replied to Perkins, “no way, man- I walk the line” (Streissguth, p.78). This statement sparked an inspiration, and Cash began to pen what would become the song that would give him his first appearance on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and the break he desperately needed. On July 14, 1956, Johnny Cash was “born,” when JR Cash’s performance of his song “I Walk the Line” was met with an earsplitting combination of cheers, whistling and applause by a packed house at the Opry’s main location of the time, Ryman Auditorium (Cash, V).

From that fateful night in Nashville, things began to move fast, and Johnny Cash became one of the fastest rising musical stars of the day. Unfortunately, the constant touring and demands of fame had a terrible toll on his marriage to Vivian, and they separated, ultimately divorcing in 1966 (Cash, V). The turmoil of his quickly fading marriage, the need to always be on top of his musical game so to speak, and the stress of a growing fame led Cash to the use of amphetamines as a means of maintaining energy and boosting his often dark moods. All was not lost at this point, however, as he became more and more friendly with a young lady who was also in the midst of a marital dissolution- June Carter, a talented and highly popular member of what was called by some the first family of country music (Turner). By the time that Cash and Carter were wed in 1968, they had become soul mates for life, and Cash was deep into a drug addiction that would strain his marriage to June, but cause her to devote herself to her famous husband with increasing commitment and what was called by those closest to them a love that while tested at time, but never died (Streissguth).

The Man Comes Around Johnny Cash enjoyed huge popularity from his “big break” in the 1950s, through hit records, film and television appearances including his own variety television show and much more well into the 1980s. During the 1980s, however, Cash experienced health setbacks and a change in the country music business which basically made him a dinosaur in the industry that he helped to build. When he found difficulty getting a major record label to continue to offer him recording contracts, Cash realized that something drastic had to change. That change would come in 1994 when Rick Rubin, an innovative young record producer, best known up to that point for producing mostly alternative rock and roll and rap music albums, took an interest in the legend that Johnny Cash had become, and wanted to use Cash’s talents to travel in a new musical direction. The first product of this collaboration, “American Recordings” was a stark collection of songs that Cash recorded solo, with only his acoustic guitar as accompaniment (Carnes). In making this album, Cash was introduced to a whole new generation of music fans, who clamored for more. For almost a decade, Cash and Rubin would produce a series of albums which brought Cash together with such diverse performers as rocker Tom Petty and Bono of U2 (Turner). Through all of these projects, one common denominator existed- no matter how famous each of the newer artists may have been, they were all in awe of the Man in Black, and he was energized by the new challenges and popularity that he enjoyed.

As the 1990s sped toward the new millennium, Cash faced another set of health problems, including diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. The latter would eventually bring Cash’s live performance days to an end, but he continued to record with Rubin nonetheless. Sadly, when June passed away in 2003, the physical demise of the Man in Black was swift and final.

Only a few months after June’s death, Johnny joined her, passing away himself on September 12, 2003, leaving behind millions of saddened fans, children and grandchildren who loved him dearly, and a musical and cultural legacy, the likes of which may never be seen again.

Conclusion

In retrospect, it would be inadequate and sadly unfair to categorize Johnny Cash as simply a musical star, television personality, or even as a father, husband or grandfather. Rather, what one must do in fairness is admit that Cash is an American icon whose influence on music continues to this day and whose legend continues to grow with each passing year. What Cash represented was not only an American success story, but also a man who befriended prophets and prisoners, struggled with his own demons, and proved that anything is possible.

Works Cited

Carnes, Mark, ed. Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Cash, John R. with Carr, Patrick. Cash the Autobiography. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.

Cash, Vivian. I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny Cash. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.

Streissguth, Michael. Johnny Cash — the Biography. Cambrige, MA: DaCapo Press, 2006.

Turner, Steve. The Man Called Cash- the Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend. Chicago: Nelson, 2007.

Johnny Cash

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