J.R. “Johnny” Cash is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Dyess, Arkansas. Cash grew up on a cotton farm, and was working in the cotton fields by the time he was six years old. He embraced his mother’s love of country and gospel music. The family would sing while working in the fields, and young J.R. learned the basics of guitar playing from a family friend. He enlisted in the Air Force (where he was renamed John R. Cash for legal reasons) after high school, and upon returning home from Germany in 1954, he married Vivian Liberto (1934-2005) and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis, he sold appliances door to door, while learning to be a radio announcer. In the evenings he played music with his new friends Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. Together they auditioned for Sam Phillips at the Sun Studios in Memphis, and together they would create the simple yet distinctive “boom-chicka-boom” sound that defines Johnny Cash’s early music.
On his famous song of devotion, “I Walk The Line”, Johnny hums to find the proper key, which changes with each verse.
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two achieved immediate success. Their first single, “Hey, Porter” b/w “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, was a top 20 hit on the Billboard Country Chart. From that point forward, Johnny Cash remained a relevant figure in popular music for the rest of his life. He released a series of successful rockabilly and country singles with Sun Records before signing a contract with Columbia Records. His stardom grew in the sixties with Columbia Records, punctuated by a memorable concert performance at Folsom Prison in California. At the height of his popularity, Johnny Cash hosted his own variety show on network television. As his popularity waned in later life, he stayed hungry, and enjoyed a renaissance by creating a series of excellent acoustic albums with famed producer Rick Rubin, which made him relevant to a whole new generation of fans. Over his career, he created an enormous body of work, recording well over a thousand songs. His deep, expressive voice is instantly recognizable to millions of Americans. His struggles with addiction, and his highly publicized love life with June Carter Cash are well known and documented. An iconic performer who defies categorization, Johnny Cash is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame (1980), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), and the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977).
One of my favorites, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”, with the Carter Family. Anita Carter is the featured vocalist.
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three:
The Carter Family:
“Mother” Maybelle Carter (1909-1978), guitar, autoharp, vocals
June Carter Cash (1929-2003), autoharp, vocals
Anita Carter (1933-1999), vocals, bass
Helen Carter (1927-1998), vocals, accordion and other instruments
Growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, Johnny Cash was not part of my childhood soundtrack. My parents were not country music fans. We never watched the Johnny Cash Show on TV, though in retrospect I wish we had, as it was one of the better music programs of its day. My Mom did buy a 45 single of “A Boy Named Sue”, and when I was in college, I bought a two album compilation named Dick Clark’s 20 Years of Rock and Roll, which introduced me to many of the great rock and roll hits of the fifties, including Cash’s “I Walk The Line”. Otherwise, Johnny Cash is one of the artists I read about and discovered later in life. Ten or fifteen years ago I purchased the three-CD compilation The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), a great starting point.
However, it was the Rolling Stone magazine review of 1994’s American Recordings that catalyzed my interest. A solo acoustic folk record, just Johnny and his guitar, singing old and new songs, some his, some written by others. It’s the rare case where an aging artist creates one of his best albums, and it augments his life’s work beautifully. Producer Rick Rubin, who had previously gained notoriety producing influential hip hop music, deserves credit for encouraging Cash to play solo on the first of the American Recordings series. He also urged Cash to keep working and recording, and Cash responded by producing hundreds of recordings in the last decade of life, many that feature accompaniment by members of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. These performances cement his reputation as the charismatic and mysterious troubadour of American folk music.
To summarize, a good starter set of Johnny Cash recordings consists of:
The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983)
Live At Folsom Prison
Unearthed (Box Set)
Walk The Line
In addition to reviewing a thoughtful subset of Johnny Cash’s music, I also watched “Walk The Line”, the biographical film that focuses on his romantic life with singer and comedienne June Carter, as well as Cash’s struggles with alcohol and amphetamines. It was the third time I watched the entire movie, and I am increasingly dissatisfied with the simple portrayals of key characters. The father, Ray Cash, appears to hold his son responsble for the death of his older brother Jack in a fatal saw accident, and susbsequently disapproves of his every action and decision. Johnny’s first wife Vivian is portrayed as a joyless shrew who resents Johnny’s musical aspirations. In addition, Johnny is portrayed as a disinterested father, rarely if ever happy at home.
Johnny and Vivian’s daughters Kathy and Rosanne Cash have publicly criticized the film’s depiction of events. Vivian and Rosanne both published memoirs in recent years, and they portray life with the famous ex-husband and father differently. Vivian views June as a home wrecker, emotionally available to Johnny while Vivian was left home in California to raise their four daughters. Rosanne says her father was down to earth and a typical proud father, when he was sober. In the movie, Johnny pursues June, who resists Johnny’s consistent advances until he is divorced. And though Ray and Johnny Cash had a complex, damaged relationship, Johnny himself treads lightly and wrote charitably of his father, though he emphasizes his mother’s role in helping him succeed.
The Statute Of Limitations
Since watching “Walk The Line” again, I’ve wanted to somehow address these complexities in relationships, and how the affected parties perceive the various words and actions. Johnny and June were married in 1968, and were apparently happy together for the rest of their storybook lives. Vivian remarried in 1968, though she never fully recovered from the pain of divorce from his famous first husband.
The story is somewhat similar to my parents, who divorced in 1968. My father, not famous but a popular, charismatic man in his own right, found love shortly thereafter and settled into a lifelong committed relationship, while my mother never found love again, and died a rather lonely person. My father, though friendly and loving, was distant and guarded in what he gave; my sister and I suffered from not having a male role model and his strong presence in our home. I made big mistakes early in life, leaving scars that still affect my confidence and self-esteem. It took my sister years to develop the tools she needed to become a successful person; still, these childhood experiences left her jaded and resentful of her father and brother. Like Johnny Cash, my father did not file for divorce, but could be accused of provoking it, and in the end was happy for most of his remaining life.
Does he deserve part of the blame for not being there through the day to day grind of raising young children, and an undisciplined son who made mistakes along the way? Perhaps. By design, neither parent instituted much structure or discipline. Both my sister and I hold onto a few tenacious remnants of the past, and we are not as close I would hope to be. Every few months, either my wife or I breaks out one of my father’s chestnuts of wisdom: “The statute of limitations for blaming your parents has run out.”
Spoken words, and the rationalizations people give for their actions, can’t be trusted. Whether Johnny or June was the pursuer reduces a decade long, complex relationship into a one dimensional problem. Cash’s drug abuse in the sixties could be a reaction to being young and desirable, while tied down by the responsibility of a wife and children when opportunities for fun and adventure were plentiful, but that again oversimplifies things. All that matters are the actions and results. In matters of the heart, things sometimes happen and people get hurt, lovers get jilted, and there’s collateral damage, guilt and pain and loss. Experience tells me those who grow up in stable households face fewer struggles in loving relationships, but that’s a generalization, too. Perhaps “Walk The Line” is more clever than it seemed at third glance, addressing the key changes in the life of a musician admired for his authenticity, and his ability to sing authoritatively about love and loss, of tribulation and sin, of God and redemption.
“The Beast In Me”, written by Nick Lowe:
“Redemption”, written by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash Song Notes:
1. I struggled more than usual to whittle down the list of songs, though there are fewer great songs than other major artists. The final list of sixty three songs consists mostly of one and two star songs. Johnny Cash is like the Frank Sinatra of folk music. He recorded versions of most folk standards, with quite a few definitive versions.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” and “Rusty Cage” can be found on Unchained.
“Another Man Done Gone” and “One More Ride” can be found on The Legend.
“The Troubadour” and “Wreck Of the Old 97” can be found on Essential Johnny Cash.
“Five Minutes To Live” can be found on Bootleg, Volume 2.
“Belshazzar” can be found on The Original Sun Recordings, Part 2.
“In Your Mind” can be found on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking.
Everything else should be easy to find.
3. “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins, is very similar to, and precedes “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Johnny Cash Songs:
I Walk The Line, Johnny Cash ★★★★
Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash ★★★★
Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, Johnny Cash ★★★★
Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash ★★★
Folsom Prison Blues (Live), Johnny Cash ★★★
The Long Black Veil, Johnny Cash ★★★
Hurt, Johnny Cash ★★★
The Mercy Seat, Johnny Cash ★★★
I’ve Been Everywhere, Johnny Cash ★★★
Drive On, Johnny Cash ★★
Solitary Man, Johnny Cash ★★
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Johnny Cash ★★
Delia’s Gone, Johnny Cash ★★
Let The Train Blow The Whistle, Johnny Cash ★★
Tennessee Stud, Johnny Cash ★★
Down There By The Train, Johnny Cash ★★
Redemption, Johnny Cash ★★
The Long Black Veil (Live), Johnny Cash ★★
A Boy Named Sue (Live), Johnny Cash ★★
Highway Patrolman, Johnny Cash ★★
Get Rhythm, Johnny Cash ★★
Rock Island Line, Johnny Cash ★★
Big River, Johnny Cash ★★
Tennessee Flat-Top Box, Johnny Cash ★★
(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Johnny Cash ★★
Jackson, Johnny Cash ★★
What Is Truth, Johnny Cash ★★
Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, Johnny Cash ★★
Another Man Done Gone, Johnny Cash ★★
I Won’t Back Down, Johnny Cash ★
Wayfaring Stranger, Johnny Cash ★
The Beast In Me, Johnny Cash ★
Oh, Bury Me Not, Johnny Cash ★
Like A Soldier, Johnny Cash ★
The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, Johnny Cash ★
Busted (Live), Johnny Cash ★
Send A Picture Of Mother (Live), Johnny Cash ★
Apache Tears, Johnny Cash ★
Five Minutes To Live, Johnny Cash ★
In Your Mind, Johnny Cash ★
The Troubadour, Johnny Cash ★
Wreck Of The Old 97, Johnny Cash ★
Guess Things Happen That Way, Johnny Cash ★
I Still Miss Someone, Johnny Cash ★
The Ballad Of Boot Hill, Johnny Cash ★
Hey Porter, Johnny Cash ★
Cry! Cry! Cry! Johnny Cash ★
Luther Played The Boogie, Johnny Cash ★
Five Feet High And Rising, Johnny Cash ★
The Ballad Of Ira Hayes, Johnny Cash ★
I Got Stripes, Johnny Cash ★
Orange Blossom Special, Johnny Cash ★
Understand Your Man, Johnny Cash ★
San Quentin #2 (Live), Johnny Cash ★
Singing In Vietnam Talking Blues, Johnny Cash ★
One More Ride, Johnny Cash ★
Belshazzar, Johnny Cash ★
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, Johnny Cash ★
The Rebel — Johnny Yuma, Johnny Cash ★
Rusty Cage, Johnny Cash ★
Thirteen, Johnny Cash ★
The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash ★
Cocaine Blues (Live), Johnny Cash ★
Redemption Song, Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer ★
The Long Black Veil, Lefty Frizzell ★★★★
The Long Black Veil, The Band ★★
I’ve Been Everywhere, Hank Snow ★
Solitary Man, Neil Diamond ★★★★★
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Ray Charles ★★★
Tennessee Stud, Doc Watson ★★
Tennessee Stud (Live), Doc Watson & David Holt ★
Rock Island Line, Lonnie Donegan ★
Big River (Live), Grateful Dead ★
(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Elvis Presley ★★★
(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Red Foley & Sunshine Boys Quartet ★★★
Another Man Done Gone, John Mayall ★★★
Another Man Done Gone, Vera Hall ★★
Another Man Done Gone, Carolina Choclate Drops ★★
I Won’t Back Down, Tom Petty ★★★
Wayfaring Stranger, Burl Ives ★★★
The Beast In Me, Nick Lowe ★
Busted, Ray Charles ★★★★
Wreck Of The Old 97, Charlie Louvin ★
Orange Blossom Special (Live), The Stanley Brothers ★★★
Orange Blossom Special, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys ★★
Crescent City Blues, Gordon Jenkins ★★
Girl From The North Country, Bob Dylan (With Johnny Cash) ★★★
Give My Love To Rose, Bruce Springsteen ★★
Texas Sun, Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash ★★
Pickin’ Time, Grandpa Jones ★
Johnny Met June, Shelby Lynne ★★
Hurt, Nine Inch Nails (not included in collection)
Rusty Cage, Soundgarden (not included in collection)