His gruff, rebellious manner and penchant for black clothes bolstered his profile just as rock 'n' roll took shape in the 1950s. But Johnny Cash's brooding baritone, underdog lyrics and distinctive, spare musical style cemented his legend.
The 10-time Grammy winner known as the Man in Black died in Nashville yesterday at age 71 of heart failure due to complications from diabetes.
His career spanned more than half a century, and through the years he invigorated country music with insightful, sometimes stinging lyrics that gave voice to the downtrodden and the forgotten. Cash recorded two of his most celebrated albums before a group of prisoners at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Until the end, the man received praise and accolades for his poignant, always-honest approach. And that praise is unlikely to fade any time soon.
"Johnny Cash has only passed into the greater light," says country singer-songwriter Dolly Parton. "He will never, ever die. He will only become more important in this industry as time goes by."
The country legend, who had been in poor health for several years, died at Nashville's Baptist Hospital. In May, his wife, singer-songwriter June Carter Cash, died after heart surgery.
In 1980, at age 48, Cash became the youngest living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and 12 years later Cash was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"He was a very kind person, very spiritual despite his outlaw image," says John Beland, a New Orleans producer who worked for years as a session guitarist in Nashville. He was 21 when he first played behind Cash at an impromptu 1970 performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. "He was the Mount Rushmore of country music. I think he was one of the final living characters that represented Americana. Beyond country music, he was such a part of this country's fabric."
John R. Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Ark., one of six children. When he was 3, his family moved to Dyess Colony in the northeastern part of the state, where his father farmed 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops. Cash and his siblings worked alongside his parents in the field. And when they weren't working, the Cashes whiled away the hours singing folks tunes and hymns.
After high school graduation in 1950, an 18-year-old Cash left for Detroit in search of a job. He ended up at an automotive plant in Pontiac, but soon left to join the U.S. Air Force. For basic training, he was shipped to Texas, where he met first wife, Vivian Liberto. In 1954, after his discharge, Liberto and Cash were married. The couple settled in Memphis, where Cash worked a variety of jobs as he tried to break into the music business.
In 1954, he auditioned as a solo artist for Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis. Cash wanted to sing gospel. But Phillips wasn't interested, telling him to come back with something commercial or forget it. Before the end of the year, Cash went back to Sun Studios with his band, the Tennessee Three (Luther Perkins on guitar, Marshall Grant on bass and Red Kernodle on pedal steel). Phillips liked what he heard and started recording.
The first single, the twangy "Hey Porter," failed to make any impact. But the follow-up, 1955's "Cry, Cry, Cry" shot to No. 14 on Billboard's pop charts, followed by a long string of hits, including Cash's signature "I Walk the Line" from 1956. The Sun sessions revealed the basis of Cash's style - a masculine, no-frills stew of blunt folk, charged rock and weary country.
After the success of his debut album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar (which was also the first LP Sun released), Cash approached Phillips again about recording a gospel album. And, again, Phillips turned him down. Feeling confined and upset about low record royalties, Cash left Sun in 1958 and signed with mighty Columbia Records, where the artist waxed his most important work, including that long-awaited gospel album, 1959's Hymns By Johnny Cash, which was a smash.
In the early 1960s, Cash played more than 300 shows a year. He was especially popular among the folk crowd, but rock audiences embraced him, too.
Although he was popular through the decade, mining gold records and hitting the charts consistently, Cash's personal life started to unravel around the mid-1960s. He became dependent on narcotics and amphetamines to keep up with the grueling pace. His marriage ended in 1966.
It was June Carter - a member of the pioneering Carter Family and former wife of Cash's drinking buddy, Carl Smith - who helped to pull him out of the downward spiral of drug abuse. (June was also instrumental in converting Cash to fundamentalist Christianity. He would later do work with Billy Graham.)
The pair had been friends for years before their relationship deepened. Cash finally proposed to June during a performance in early 1968. And by the spring of that year, the two were married. They toured together shortly afterward in a family show that included June, her sisters Anita and Helen, her mother, Maybelle, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins.
Beginning in 1969, The Johnny Cash Show, on which the singer spotlighted a young Kris Kristofferson and shared the mike with Bob Dylan, ran on ABC and attracted faithful viewers for two years.
Throughout the 1970s, Cash continued to place hits on the charts: "Flesh and Blood," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "One Piece at a Time," "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" and others. In 1975, he published Man in Black, his best-selling autobiography.
Cash's influence at this point had long reached outside the country genre.
"I loved him as a singer and a writer," says Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. "I remember years ago a big part of our repertoire was two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, 'I Walk the Line' and 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen.'"
As the 1980s dawned, country music moved in a slicker, more pop-oriented direction. And Cash was shut out of the charts - though he still put out well-received albums as part of the Highwaymen, a super group that included pals Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
There was renewed interest in Cash's work just weeks before he died. The stark video for his remake of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," garnered six nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards, including video of the year, best male video and best direction. (Cash, who was ailing at the time, couldn't attend the show.)
It was a surprising feat for the country music titan whose clip was seldom played on the network, which caters to viewers born years after Cash reached his artistic and commercial peak. His competition at this year's awards program included artists young enough to be his grandchildren: Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott, Eminem and 50 Cent.
Cash's video - featuring the frail, shaking musician lip-syncing as shots of his younger self stream by - obviously resonated with the music executives, video directors and journalists who vote on the nominations. Even without the poignant clip, Cash's haunting take on "Hurt," a dirge-like meditation on the darkness of life, still penetrates. The singer's weathered vocals add depth: I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel pain/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that's real. ...
The video won for best cinematography.
Cash's latest album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, is his fourth in a stripped-down, back-to-basics series produced by Rick Rubin. Originally released last November but reissued in February with a bonus disc of interviews, The Man Comes Around contains reinterpretations of such pop staples as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."
Beland, 54, says the artist's legacy transcends music.
"I saw him at a Kroger's [grocery] in Nashville at 10:30 at night," the musician recalls, "and there he was, pushing his cart down the aisle in his pajamas. He was still Johnny Cash. You know how sometimes when you see the people you admire so much and they seem so small in person? Johnny Cash looked as big as his legend. To me, he was 20 feet tall."
Cash is survived by one son, John Carter Cash, from his second marriage, and four daughters, Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy and Tara, from his first.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
The songs of Johnny Cash
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,/ I keep my eyes wide open all the time,/ I keep the ends out for the tie that binds,/ Because you're mine, I walk the line.
- from "I Walk the Line"
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, "Son,/ Always be a good boy; don't ever play with guns."/ But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die./ When I hear that whistle blowin' I hang my head and cry.
- from "Folsom Prison Blues"
At my door the leaves are falling/ A cold wild wind has come/ Sweethearts walk by together/ And I still miss someone.
- from "I Still Miss Someone"
Love is a burning thing/ And it makes a fiery ring/ Bound by wild desire/ I fell into a ring of fire.
- from "Ring of Fire"
My daddy left home when I was three/ And he didn't leave much to ma and me,/ Just this ol' guitar and an empty bottle of booze. / Now, I don't blame him 'cause he run and hid/ But the meanest thing that he ever did/ Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."
- from "A Boy Named Sue"
On a Sunday morning sidewalk/ I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned/ 'Cause there's something in a Sunday/ That makes a body feel alone./ And there's nothin' short of dyin'/ That's half as lonesome as the sound/ Of a sleepin' city sidewalk/ And Sunday mornin' comin' down.
- from "Sunday Morning Coming Down"