Johnny Cash, the greatest storyteller

By Sergio Ariza

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" - these simple words served to assure the audience that they were before possibly the best storyteller in popular music of the twentieth century. There were people with better and more expressive voices, but nobody knew how to make better use of his than Johnny Cash; every word that came out of his mouth rang true and you could imagine him killing a guy in Reno just to see him die, alone in the darkness of a mine, being hanged for not revealing that the night of the crime he was with the wife of his best friend or fighting with the bastard of his father for calling him Sue.... It didn't matter if the words were his or someone else's, when Johnny Cash interpreted a song, that song became his.      


He will always be remembered as one of the great figures of country music, possibly the second most important after the legendary Hank Williams, but Cash was one of the few performers who crossed the border of that genre and reached other ears, especially if we take into account that his spectacular beginning was in the ranks of rockabilly and his end was as a hero of the entire alternative rock scene. Something that, again, he achieved by giving life to every word he sang, turning his simple stories into something personal, both for the singer and the listener.

J.R. Cash
was born on February 26, 1932 in the middle of nowhere: specifically in the Arkansas of the Great Depression. The son of a violent and irascible father, he was the middle of seven siblings, and worked in the cotton fields from the age of five. His only escape from his harsh reality was the radio, where he listened to gospel and the beginnings of country music with the Carter family and his beloved brother Jack. At the age of 12, Jack died after an accident while working, and Johnny felt that he had only one consolation left.


At 18 his hero was Hank Williams but it seemed unlikely that he could follow in his footsteps, so to escape Arkansas he enlisted in the army. He was stationed in Germany where he worked as a radio operator, intercepting Morse messages from the Soviets. That was how Johnny Cash (when he enlisted he had to give himself a name because they would not let him sign his name as only J.R.) was one of the first Americans to learn of the death of Josef Stalin, on March 5, 1953, although it surely did not affect him as much as when he learned, three months earlier, of the death of Hank Williams.

It was in Germany where Cash began his musical career, forming a group called the Barbarians in which he gave free rein to his passion for country and gospel music. He returned to the U.S. in July 1954 and soon married and moved to Memphis, where he met guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, who would become known as the Tennessee Two. They didn't have much musical experience, nor any technique, but Perkins with his Esquire would bring out the unmistakable rhythmic pattern known as 'boom-chicka-boom'; Cash's facility with words, his mastery of storytelling/singing and his deep baritone voice would give them there other hallmarks.


Still, when they dared to go to Sun Records, encouraged by the buzz another Memphis boy named Elvis Presley was causing. Instead of playing his own songs to Sam Phillips, Cash decided to play several gospel hymns, which led the studio owner to, according to legend, tell the young man to go out and sin a little and then come back with a handful of songs. The fact is that Cash returned with Cry!, Cry!, Cry!, Cry! and Hey Porter - and rockabilly found another of its fundamental figures. The single was recorded on June 1, 1955 and sold over 100,000 copies in the South, sending Cash on tour with Elvis and Carl Perkins.

In his second session at Sun, in July '55, he recorded one of the fundamental songs of his career, Folsom Prison Blues, which included the immortal phrase "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die", with which Cash, in his simple style, made clear the evil and stupidity that can inhabit a human being. The brilliant thing about his interpretation is that, by the end of it, you felt sympathy for a character who is a real son of a bitch...


His biggest hit on Sun would come soon after with I Walk The Line, his first number one on the country charts (in a career in which he would score 13) that also cracked the top 20 on the pop charts. When Elvis left Sun for RCA to become the biggest star on the planet Cash became the label's best-selling artist, although Phillips would bet on the wilder Jerry Lee Lewis as a possible heir, that and the Sun's boss refusing Cash from recording gospel (another of his great passions) would lead him to leave the label and sign for a much bigger one – Columbia - in 1958. However, Columbia did not function like RCA, who also bought all the masters of his Sun recordings when they signed Elvis, and for several years Cash saw how his new recordings had to compete with Sun's unreleased material.

However what would most mark Cash’s career during his time at Sun was his addiction to pills, which had begun during those tours in which he shared road, whiskey and fights with Lewis, Perkins and Roy Orbison. Also, despite being barely audible, Cash was one of the participants, along with Elvis, Lewis and Perkins in the mythical Million Dollar Quartet sessions.

Despite his unbridled lifestyle, his simple wardrobe (always dressed in black) and the spartan nature of his productions, Cash became the biggest star in country music, filling the void left by Williams. His first recording for Columbia, Don't Take Your Guns To Town gave him another number one in 1958, the same year in which he played for the first time in a prison. It was January 1 at San Quentin and among the inmates was a 20-year-old who, influenced by Cash's enormous charisma, was to become another of country music's ultimate legends:
Merle Haggard.


In 1961 he met June Carter, one of the daughters of the original Carter family and the singer fell madly in love. Although the feelings were mutual, neither of them separated from their partners because Carter believed it was impossible to have a serious relationship with Cash because of his dangerous lifestyle. In 1963 June put her feelings in a song entitled Ring Of Fire that her sister Anita recorded in 1963; when Cash heard it he had the feeling that it was for him, as he had had a dream in which he played it with mariachi trumpets. He had absolute respect for the Carter sisters, so he told Anita that he was going to leave it for a few months to see if her version became a hit but if it didn't he was going to record his own. At the end of March Johnny Cash entered the studio to record the most famous song of his career, accompanied by the Carter sisters and the mythical matriarch of the family, Maybelle Carter. Ring Of Fire became an immense success but the fire between Johnny and June would continue to burn for a few years until it materialized.

Cash’s addiction to amphetamines increased during the 60s, leading him to be arrested on several occasions (although the man in black, despite his countless songs on the subject, only spent a couple of nights behind bars). His marriage ended and his career also seemed to be affected, but the religious Cash had a vision after being banned from the Grand Ole Opry and June and Maybelle took care of him until he managed to quit pills and alcohol.    


Legend has it that when on January 13, 1968 he recorded his mythical concert at Folsom Prison, Cash had already detoxed, but listening to his frenetic performance, capable of getting the inmates in his pocket with each interlocution and, even more, with each song, one might think that Cash had ingested more than just a glass of water: for example, just listen to his frenetic version of Cocaine Blues. Of course, if one thing is clear throughout his career, it is that Cash always gave his all in front of an audience, whether sober or not, as is also evident here when Cash is left alone with his Martin D28 and his voice in front of his audience. Few singers need so little to express so much.

The resulting album, At Folsom Prison, was the biggest hit of his career, with the live version of Folsom Prison Blues giving him a new number one. Of course, he now also became a crossover star, reaching out to rock audiences who saw in him an outlaw that went beyond the mellow Nashville standards. The year 1968 closed with another resounding hit, Daddy Sang Bass, a song that his former Sun partner Carl Perkins wrote for him as a thank you for helping him overcome his addiction to alcohol. It was that same year that Johnny and June finally married, after he proposed on stage.

1969 was an even better year: At San Quentin, with another of his performances at San Quentin, was even more successful, giving him one of his singles, the humorous A Boy Named Sue his first Top Ten (it was number 2) in the pop charts after 14 years of career. Of course, the best moment comes with the rendition of the song San Quentin in which Cash is about to instigate a prison riot when he spits "San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall and may I live to tell / May all the world forget you ever stood / And may all the world regret you did no good". As if that wasn't enough, it was the same year that his own television show began airing, in which Cash evidenced his enormous good taste and his ability to connect with audiences of all kinds, with his first guests being two of the greatest songwriters of all time,
Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.


Cash’s relationship with Dylan was profound; from the first moment he heard him Cash recognized his talent. When after his first album with Columbia the company thought of firing Dylan, Cash convinced them not to do it, and Dylan’s next work The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, was the one that made him a myth. In 1964 he recorded one of Dylan’s songs, It Ain't Me Babe, in what was his first duet with his second wife, June Carter. In 1966 they met in person in Cardiff, Wales, while both were on tour, Cash gave him one of his Martins and they both sang, with Dylan on piano, a cover of Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; both of them as high as a kite. But in 1969, now free of addictions, they met again in the recording studio while Dylan was working on Nashville Skyline; from that collaboration only their wonderful duet in Girl From The North Country was on the album - but both recorded countless versions that would later see the light. It was also there that Dylan composed Wanted Man, a song that Cash recorded for his At San Quentin.

But after this moment of popularity and success Johnny Cash's career stagnated and in the 70s and 80s he was declining both artistically and commercially. When in 1992 he appeared at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary tribute concert, singing It Ain' Me Babe with June Carter, many had already forgotten him, mainly in the country world that was already moving in other directions. But there was one guy listening who saw that Cash was still one of the best performers that the USA has given to the world: this was producer Rick Rubin, creator of Def American and known for his productions with Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Slayer and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rubin had just changed the name of his production company to American Recordings and decided to sign Cash and give him total creative freedom.

Cash decided to forgo any artifice and deliver an album in which only his deep voice is heard accompanied by another of his faithful Martins, in this case a D-42JC. The result was one of the best albums of his career, American Recordings, and it opened with a new reading of Delia's Gone, in which with just his rendition of the opening line, Cash has already sold you the whole song: "If I hadn't shot poor Delia, I’d have had her for my wife...". One of the things that Rubin brought to the table was the choice of more contemporary material, as on that first album Cash performed songs by Glen Danzig, Nick Lowe,
Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, but on subsequent volumes came appropriations of songs by Tom Petty, Soundgarden, Will Oldham and Nick Cave - who is basically a gothic punk version of Cash himself.


On the last volume of American Recordings that was published in his life, the fourth in 2002, appeared what may be his two definitive covers, Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus, with John Frusciante on guitar, and, above all, Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. With them he demonstrated that it didn't matter if he performed his own song, an old Hank Williams hit or a song by an industrial rock band, any material was given a new dimension and depth when interpreted by Johnny Cash. As Trent Reznor, author of Hurt, said, "that song is no longer mine."

After overcoming addictions, heart attacks and a multitude of health problems Johnny Cash's heart stopped on September 12, 2003, I guess this time he didn't want to fight for his life, as June Carter had left this world three months before...   

The man who had started his professional career singing with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, ended it playing with Tom Petty, Flea,
Lindsey Buckingham, Nick Cave, Fiona Apple and Joe Strummer of the Clash. With the latter he recorded a magnificent cover of Bob Marley's Redemption Song in which he sang a phrase composed by the Jamaican but which is also valid for those two giants who left this world shortly after recording it: "Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom? Cause all I ever had, redemption songs, these songs of freedom, redemption songs".


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