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10 Reasons to Celebrate Johnny Cash’s Legend

Johnny Cash Anniversary
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

J.R. Cash was born in Kingsland, Ark., on Feb. 26, 1932, as 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, Cash is nothing less than a national treasure and an absolute legend in not just the country genre but music as a whole.

Though he passed away on Sept. 12, 2003, Cash’s legend and impact on music will live on forever — including for the following 10 reasons that he was and will always remain an American icon.

1. “Hurt”. Devastating and yet somehow oddly comforting at the same time, Cash’s version of a 1994 Nine Inch Nails tune, penned by Trent Reznor, may have come farther out of left field than any other song the country icon covered throughout his six-decade career — but it fit the Man in Black perfectly. An unsettling epitaph made even more heart-wrenching thanks to the unforgettable music video that captured Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, in the last months of their lives, “Hurt” showed Cash 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 that he’s left us to remember him by.

2. The Johnny Cash ShowFor two decades, variety shows dominated television with a mixture of big Hollywood stars, comedy sketches, musical acts and other forms of entertainment. But when 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 Johnny Cash Show was among those canceled by the network in an attempt to reach a younger, less rural audience. A best-of DVD collection is currently available — and well worth investigating.

3. Johnny Cash at Folsom PrisonTo pinpoint the origin of the legend that Cash had spent time in prison, one need look no further than this 1968 live performance, and a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin Prison. Cash 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 in 1958, a show attended by then-inmate and future country legend Merle Haggard.) Cash, his band the Tennessee Three, June Carter Cash, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins recorded two shows for an enthusiastic crowd on Jan. 13. Since its initial release, the album has been reissued with bonus tracks and a DVD. At San Quentin followed a year later.

4. Walk the LineTaking its title from Cash’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 Cash’s turbulent younger years, taking audiences through his journey 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.

5. Family. Between his Carter Family in-laws and their ancestors and his own offspring, Cash’s musical family tree could fill an encyclopedia of country music history. Daughter Rosanne Cash, stepdaughter Carlene Carter (the daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter Cash) and John Carter Cash have all advanced the Carter and Cash family legacies in immeasurable ways. The ex-husbands in the family include Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell and British pop star Nick Lowe.

6. The Concept Albums. Beginning in 1959, Cash 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.

7. “Ring of Fire”. Having been fired from the Grand Ole Opry for stomping the footlights on the Ryman Auditorium stage after a performance, Cash was no stranger to unique forms of musical expression. But when it came to “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore (and first recorded by Carter Cash’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 song was released in 1963, but country music this far south of the border was new, and exciting, territory. Dwight Yoakam and Blondie are among the acts who’ve since covered it.

8. Brushes With the Law. Run-ins with authority figures may not be amusing, but when it comes to Cash’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 that Cash 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, Cash was arrested in Starkville, Miss. The charge: picking wildflowers.

9. Cool Collaborations. Throughout his career, Cash recorded and performed with artists from all musical walks of life, including country, rock, pop, punk and even heavy metal. Among our favorite Cash collaborators: U2 (“The Wanderer”); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who backed him on the Unchained album in 1996; Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, who teamed up for the 1986 project, Class of ’55; and Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who were his fellow Highwaymen. And who can forget the Grammy-winning “Jackson” with the woman who would become Mrs. Cash just a few months after the song’s release.

10. Man in Black. For Cash, basic black wasn’t just a fashion statement; it became a personal and political stance as well. In March of 1971, just as his network TV show was canceled, Cash 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.

This story was originally written by Stephen L. Betts, and revised by Christina Vinson.

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