Country Legend: Johnny Cash – the Voice of America

The voice of Johnny Cash fills the sky above the United States of America. His music spans the imagined space between country and rock and brings together people of all generations in admiration. Cash’s voice is America’s conscience and the delicate sound of its thunder has been the soundtrack to the trials and tribulations of the USA for over half a century. ‘Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar’ was released in October 1957 on Sun Records and contained three stone cold classic songs that still dominate country music playlists: ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.

More hit records, and four further albums followed, before the dawn of the 1960’s and the mainstream music industry brought Cash to Columbia Records for a series of themed albums that drew on Cash’s love of American history. ‘Ride This Train’, ‘Bitter Tears’ and ‘From Sea To Shining Sea’ all garnered further success for country music’s biggest star (now dubbed a ‘singer/songwriter’ by the rising rock press) and Cash’s crossover to the mainstream was complete. The end of the 1960’s brought marriage to fellow country music icon June Carter and ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ on TV, and as the new decade dawned, the Arkansas-born all-American hero remained all things to everyone following hit live records ‘At Folsom Prison’ and ‘At San Quentin’ (featuring the hit single ‘A Boy Named Sue’).

Cash cemented his celebrity status in the 1970s with a series of records that kept him and his growing family on the road playing to packed audiences, while never really threatening the status quo in the same way as his early music shook up Nashville and country music in general. He became the Country Music Hall of Fame’s youngest living member in 1980 (he was 48), but the decade that followed wasn’t kind to Cash’s music. Average albums and awful singles (‘Chicken In Black’, anyone?) meant the living legend drifted into television and films to keep the show on the road, though the ‘Highwayman’ album – recorded with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in 1985 – was a particular highlight of the decade style forgot.

However, the nineties delivered a brand new chapter as Cash connected the dots between his roots and Generation X thanks to the start of a series of acoustic-led albums with Def Jam pioneer Rick Rubin. The catalytic ‘American Recordings’, released in 1994, found Cash relocating the muse and performing a stunning set of songs direct to tape with just his voice and guitar. ‘The Man In Black’ was back and audiences from LA’s trendy Viper Room to Glastonbury Festival were primed to welcome a prodigal son home and into the bosom of popular culture. Further stripped back albums followed, with covers of artists as diverse as Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, as Cash devoted what was left of his life to recording songs both old and new at an unprecedented pace – indeed, following the death of his beloved June Carter in 2003, Cash instructed Rubin that he wanted to work every day until he died.

It was in August 2003 that Cash, his son John Carter and producer Rubin captured Johnny’s final slew of tunes, including a performance of the self-penned ‘Like The 309’. Just a month later, on September 12th 2003, John R. Cash died of complications from diabetes at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital and was later buried next to June near their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Behind The Song – ‘The Man Comes Around’ (from ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’, 2002)

“I spent more time on this song than ever I any wrote…” – Johnny Cash talking about the title track of his fourth album for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, ‘The Man Comes Around’. “I recycled the song for months, over and over, until I’d have to get up out of bed and turn on the radio… it worked for a while, but my inner playback always went back to the song,” he revealed in the album’s liner notes. Like the gestation of mega-hit ‘Ring Of Fire’, this was a tune that apparently came to Cash in a dream whilst in England (Nottingham, of all places!) and he was determined to chase it. “I dreamed that I walked into Buckingham Palace and Queen Elizabeth II looked up at me and said ‘Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in the whirlwind.’ When I woke, that sounded familiar to me and eventually I decided it was biblical and I found it in the book of Job… then it became ‘The Man Comes Around’.”