February 26, 2022 marks Johnny Cash’s ninetieth birthday; the Man in Black died at age seventy one in 2003. In celebration of one of the most influential musicians of the last seventy years, this month I'm focusing on his story, his appeal and how to find his best material in an incredibly rich, voluminous discography.
Johnny Cash stands alone as an artist who can claim to have been popular from the dawn of rock’n’roll in the early fifties through the rise of MTV and into the digital age, albeit with a few career dips along the way. While Sun Records labelmate Elvis Presley achieved greater fame at the start of his career, Presley peaked in the late fifties. Despite a few comebacks, most notably his 1968 TV Special and 1969's From Elvis in Memphis, by the end of his life Presley was sadly limited to Las Vegas concerts in front of nostalgia-seeking fans. Johnny Cash was still making some of the most powerful music of his life up until the end, and his legacy continues to receive a high level of respect and notoriety within popular culture as Presley's light progressively fades.
So many different components informed Johnny Cash’s art. His background was hardscrabble and uniquely American. He picked cotton as a child in an Arkansas New Deal colony established to aid the poor. As an adolescent he suffered through the tragic loss of a beloved older brother in a grizzly work accident. Raised on gospel music, Cash was blessed with a totally unique, rich baritone voice that is still unmatched. He wrote songs about traveling, heartbreak and family and set them to a chugging, train-like guitar rhythm that evoked the locomotives so vital to America's growth into an industrial powerhouse. He sought out and shined a powerful spotlight on the downtrodden, from forgotten Native Americans and prisoners to people struggling with substance abuse and those longing for a sense of purpose. A large part of his resonance may stem from his unique voice and musical approach, but it was his perspective and ability to write from personal experience that made him so special.
Although he died nearly twenty years ago, Cash is still a global musical force. His museum in Nashville sees long lines, and Jim Marshall's legendary shot from his Folsom Prison concert in 1968 (see above) is still rightfully regarded as the most quintessential rock’n’roll photograph in history. I Walk The Line, the biopic released in 2005, received five Oscar nominations and garnered a Best Actress trophy for Reese Witherspoon for her performance as June Carter Cash. It also inspired a Judd Apatow parody, Walk Hard, that blew up the rock biopic genre and has made every rock biopic since look cliched. Cash's final albums were produced by Rick Rubin and saw him breathe new life into songs by some of the most popular acts of the nineties. Johnny Cash has never gone out of style, and it is just as easy to appreciate him now as it was sixty years ago. Few artists have enjoyed such long-lasting relevance. In a creative landscape focused on the flavor of the moment, featuring a content-starved public that suffers from the short-attention-span-syndrome that makes a five-year career a stretch, Cash is still a critical part of the artistic oxygen that informs modern music. Hip-hop, americana and roots music owe a huge debt to his trailblazing work, and even today’s tepid modern country reveres him for his notable contributions to its foundations.
My personal experience with Cash: in February of 1993 I bought tickets to see him perform on his sixty-first birthday at the intimate, 470-capacity Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I wasn't much of a fan at that point, attending primarily out of curiosity. My familiarity with him stemmed mostly from covers by the Grateful Dead and Ry Cooder, and as a child I'd loved “A Boy Named Sue” when it was a big hit in the late sixties. To say I was blown away would be a huge understatement; Cash's deep, American roots seeped out of his pores. It might've been a little sad to see him play to such a small audience, but I was hooked on the spot. That night spurred me on a musical journey into his catalog that coincided with a career resurgence for Cash over the final decade of his life.
I saw Cash later that same year at the Marin Civic Auditorium. Where the San Francisco concert was populated by a youthful, rock-oriented crowd, the sold-out, 2000-capacity San Rafael show, less than twenty miles north of San Francisco, was filled with rural fans there for Cash’s gospel and country material. When he played “The Wanderer,” the song off U2’s then-popular Zooropa LP that he'd lent his vocals to, my wife and I appeared to be the only ones there that recognized it.
By the last time I saw him live--at the Boulder Theater in June of 1997–Cash's comeback was in full flower. The venue was sold out and it was the noisiest concert I’ve ever attended. Cash was greeted like a hero returning from the war, and the audience gave him so much love and attention it was moving. The music was almost secondary, as people just wanted to let him know how much they loved him and how thrilled they were to be in his presence. I have a recording of the show, but it is essentially unlistenable due to the perpetual hoots and hollers of the attendees.
So how does one even begin to explore such a vast, varied and extensive musical discography? Johnny Cash’s career spanned from 45s to 8-track and cassette tapes through CDs to the resurgence of vinyl and the domination of streaming media. It can be overwhelming to dive in; to listen to the entirety of the Man in Black's art you'd need a turntable, a CD player, a DVD player and a streaming music subscription. The good news is that there are no shortage of places to start, and it’s impossible to go wrong.
Johnny Cash made more than a hundred studio albums (including efforts with the Carter Family, as part of The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, and others) and no less than sixteen live albums. Here are some good ways to learn more about his enduring musical legacy.
Johnny Cash – At San Quentin
The second of two prison albums Cash released in the late sixties, At San Quentin spurred a comeback and featured one of his biggest hits, “A Boy Named Sue” (with lyrics by Shel Silverstein). The energy of the prison crowd is off the charts; it’s intense to hear Cash riling up the inmates, and one can only imagine how nervous the prison guards must have felt that day. Composed just for the occasion, his song “San Quentin,” with lyrics including “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” is so incendiary that Cash plays it twice in succession to appease his enthralled audience.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Cash’s first live album, recorded at another renowned California prison, features a number of his incarceration-specific songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Give My Love to Rose” and powerful covers of “25 Minutes To Go,” “Cocaine Blues” and the classic “Long Black Veil.”
Johnny Cash -- With His Hot and Blue Guitar!
Cash’s 1957 LP debut followed two years of singles. His first hits, “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “I Walk the Line” are here, along with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hey Porter,” which was added to later CD reissues.
Johnny Cash – The Fabulous Johnny Cash
His sophomore effort released in 1958, The Fabulous Johnny Cash featured hits “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and “Frankie’s Man, Johnny” as well as the classic “I Still Miss Someone.”
Johnny Cash – Bitters Tears: Ballads of the American Indian
For this 1964 release, Cash created a concept album focused on the plight of Native Americans. This bold effort faced censorship and backlash from radio stations, but still had a Top Ten hit in “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the story of the Native American who was one of the six marines that raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Bitter Tears also included “Custer,” which mocked the then-venerated General Custer. The album spawned a 2014 tribute from Americana artists and a 2016 PBS documentary about its attempted suppression.
Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special
The follow-up to Bitter Tears featured a number of covers that would remain popular with fans for decades to come, including Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” A.P. Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” and the title track, which he played at nearly every concert for the rest of this career.
Johnny Cash – Johnny 99
In 1983, at one of the low points in his career arc, Cash released this LP of covers notable for its powerful interpretations of two songs from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, “Highway Patrolman” and the title track. Cash also had a minor hit with George Jones’ “I’m Ragged But I’m Right.”
Johnny Cash – American II: Unchained
Cash’s late career resurgence started with his series of American Recordings produced by Rick Rubin, famous for producing The Beastie Boys and Tom Petty, among others. There were six albums in the series, including two released posthumously. Unchained features the Heartbreakers (with Tom Petty) as backing band, and includes memorable versions of Beck’s “Rowboat,” Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and “I’ve Been Everywhere,” heard on many commercials in the ensuing decades.
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
The American Recordings collection was notable primarily for Cash’s stark, acoustic takes on well-curated compositions. The fourth in the series and the final album released before he passed in 2003, this is probably the most popular of the batch. His cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” was accompanied by a moving video that powerfully spoke to his declining health and few remaining days, while “Personal Jesus” improved upon the Depeche Mode original. The album closed with Cash and his family singing “We’ll Meet Again.”
Johnny Cash – The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983
Like many of his fellow artists in the fifties and sixties, Cash released some of his best-known songs as 45s and not on LPs. This 3-CD set from 1992 includes the most famous tracks from before his late-career comeback, including “Big River,” Ring of Fire” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Johnny Cash – The Legend of Johnny Cash
No 2-LP set will ever come remotely close to encompassing Cash’s career and scores of beloved songs, but this 2014 release starts at first single “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and finishes with “Hurt,” and does a respectable job of hitting many of the biggest milestones in between.
Johnny Cash – The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show 1969-1971
From 1969 to 1971 Johnny Cash hosted a TV show from the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville that spotlighted some of the biggest rock, folk and country artists of the day. Released in 2007 on a 2-DVD set with an accompanying soundtrack LP, the caliber of Cash’s guests is staggering. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Bill Monroe are just a few of the legends included in this collection; in many instances, Cash joins his guest to duet. The CD/vinyl soundtrack comes with sixteen selections, while the DVD has more than sixty songs and includes introductions by Kris Kristofferson.