music / Hall Of Fame

411 Music Hall Of Fame Class Of 2008: Johnny Cash

February 13, 2008 | Posted by Mitch Michaels


• Sold over 20 million albums in the US alone, including 18 gold, 10 platinum and 5 multi-platinum records.
• 15 Top 40 hits, including the #2 gold single “A Boy Named Sue”.
• 98 Top 40 hits on the Country charts.
• Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame (1977).
• Inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame (1980).
• Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (1992).
• Recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors award (1996).
• Winner of nine Country Music Association awards, including 1969’s Entertainer of the Year.
• Won the Music City News Living Legend Award (1989).
• Winner of seventeen Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
• Subject of the Academy Award winning biographical movie Walk The Line (2005).
• The Man In Black

Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas in the early 30’s. He grew up with a deep appreciation for music, and fulfilled a lifelong goal when he recorded his first single “Cry Cry Cry”, a song that reached Country music’s Top 10.

That makes a nice beginning, doesn’t it? But the truth is this: Johnny Cash made history in 1955 when he first recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, and the honest music that would come from Cash would change the face of country and rock music forever. Not just once, but several times.

Johnny Cash’s blend of rock ‘n’ roll attitude and the world-weariness of folk hardly fit the mould of any music that was around in Cash’s early years, but Cash soon became forever synonymous with country, a genre that suited him just fine. By the time Cash jumped from Sun to Columbia Records in 1958 (for both better money and greater artistic freedom), he had well over a dozen hit singles under his belt. Cash’s time at Sun was marked by the #1 Country hits “There You Go”, “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen”, “I Guess Things Happen That Way” and, of course, “I Walk The Line”. And while Sun records was home to rock ‘n’ roll forces like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash was the first Sun artist to release a full length record: Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar in 1957. In fact, Sun would continue to release Johnny Cash for years after his contract ended. These singles, including “The Ways Of A Woman In Love”, “Thanks A Lot” and “Oh Lonesome Me”, were frequently country hits.

Cash’s early years at Columbia Records are notable for two major things. First, he continued to release hit songs and albums there for years, including the country #1’s “Ring Of Fire” and “Understand Your Man” (both of which were Top 40 crossover hits) and the gold albums I Walk The Line and Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash.

Secondly, it was at Columbia that Cash developed his image as an outlaw. Johnny had picked up a drug habit early into his career, often relying on this pill and that pill to keep him awake and keep him creative. The drugs made Cash’s behavior erratic, making for memorable live performances and interviews. Combined with a propensity for drinking copious amounts of alcohol, Johnny Cash became known as a loose cannon. He was arrested on a few occasions (though he never served jail time), which drove his family crazy. It also drove his fans into a frenzy.

Unfortunately, a rock star life often leads to rock star excess. Cash’s drug habit soon caught up with him to the point that his music was affected. By the mid-60’s, hit records were fewer and far between. It seemed that Cash’s way of life was poised to overtake his success.

Fortunately, help came along by way of Cash’s off-and-on touring partner and soon-to-be wife June Carter of the legendary Carter family. Carter helped Cash kick his drug habit and revitalize his career. She gave him more than love, she gave him a passion to keep pressing on. In 1968, Cash made a huge comeback with the unprecedented live album At Folsom Prison, which yielded a return to the singles charts as the live version of his signature “Folsom Prison Blues” shot to the top of the Country charts. The Man In Black was back in a big way.

Along with several hit singles in this second chapter of his career, Cash also made his mark on television as well; his innovative “Johnny Cash Show” ran on ABC for two seasons. The show bent genres deftly, featuring such seemingly dissimilar musicians as Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Gordon Lightfoot collaborating with Cash.

The good times couldn’t last forever, though. By the time the 70’s were ending, Cash was beginning to find himself in another decline. His singles were charting lower and his relationship with Columbia was going sour. The label seemed less and less interested in the aging country icon and, in 1986, the two parted ways, ending a nearly 30 year business association.

Cash hopped to Mercury Records, but the pairing seemed to be doomed from the start. The label wanted to put a short leash on Cash, who they viewed more as a has-been novelty act, and Cash didn’t enjoy nearly the range of creative freedom that Columbia had given him in his early days. With both radio and label apathy, Cash’s self confidence began to falter as making music became harder and his output grew more routine. In fact, Cash only had one Top 40 country single from his brief time at Mercury: a duet with Hank Williams, Jr. called “That Old Wheel”.

Cash had some luck in the early 90’s as a second collaboration with The Highwaymen (a country super group consisting of Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson) sold well; better, in fact, than most of his solo work had charted in the past decade. Still, Cash’s deal with Mercury ended in 1993, and many in the industry had more or less written The Man In Black off. John had been pushed aside for something shiny and new, a legend whose last act seemed to be to ride away quietly. But that wasn’t everyone’s idea. Enter Rick Rubin.

Rubin was a hot rap and metal producer who helped Russel Simmons form the seminal Def Jam label. He owned his own imprint, American, and managed to convince Cash to sign on in the early 90’s, convincing Cash that there was still plenty of great music for him to record. A skeptical Cash figured he had little to lose, so he went into the project headlong.

Rubin’s idea for Cash was to showcase his powerful and authoritive baritone in a raw and naked environment, recording Cash for the first time with only an acoustic guitar and voice on an entire record. Rubin encouraged Cash to sing his own songs, country standards, and even unlikely cuts by acts like Nick Lowe, Danzig and Tom Waits. The resulting album, titled simply American Recordings, caught the attention of music critics with its stark beauty and the pairing of Rubin and Cash also caught the eye of a younger group of fans who knew Cash only from his badass outlaw records that their parents or even grandparents loved to listen to. In a sense, Johnny Cash had been reborn.

After American Recordings picked up a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Cash and Rubin hit the studio again, this time seeing how Cash would fair in a full band environment. Rather than hire session musicians, Rubin called in associate Tom Petty to bring in his tight Heartbreakers band to act as Cash’s backing unit. The disc, Unchained, once again featured some strange selections, as Cash covered everyone from himself to Petty to Beck to Jimmie Rodgers to Soundgarden. With the Heartbreakers behind him, Unchained became an album that managed to exceed the tough expectations that American Recordings had brought about. The disc was even awarded the Grammy for Best Country Album in 1997, despite the fact that it got zero radio play.

Following two successful albums, Cash was back in the national spotlight for the first time in nearly 20 years. Cash compilations and T-shirts became a hot commodity. John appeared all over MTV and even had a well-received episode of VH1’s “Storytellers”.

Around the time Cash and Rubin started work on their third disc together, Cash was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (which was actually a misdiagnosis) and his health was failing fast. Public appearances became scattered, but Cash was determined to continue his studio work with Rubin, even if it was at a slower pace.

American III: Solitary Man, a combination of the stark first album and the rocked up Unchained, hit stores in 2000. The album stood up to its successors, but Cash’s voice was beginning to convey the severity of his health problems. Still, John managed to take each of the songs and make them most definitely his, singing with a gentle authority that expressed his 68 years of both heartbreak and joy. American IV: The Man Comes Around dropped in 2002 and featured more of the same. The album was hailed by critics and, thanks to a stunning video, Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” became his first radio hit in a long time.

Unfortunately, 2003 would mark more than Cash’s return to radio and awards shows. In May, Cash’s longtime wife and inspiration June Carter died during heart surgery. The heartbroken Cash threw himself into his work following June’s death, toiling hard to complete his follow-up to American IV, as well as put together a box set of session recordings that hadn’t made his American albums. Cash never lived to see either’s completion. On September 13, 2003, Johnny Cash died due to complications from diabetes.

Following his death, both the box set and the fifth American album saw release to rave reviews. Both were certified gold and, upon its release, American V: A Hundred Highways, became Johnny Cash’s first #1 album since 1969.

Why Johnny Cash Was Selected:

Few artists are as universally recognizable as Johnny Cash. His baritone voice, his tall stature and his “Man In Black” image are iconic. Cash’s music transcends genres and that is evidenced by the diverse array of people who will agree that Johnny Cash is one of America’s greatest legends. As a music fan that started my journey in country, Cash has been one of the few universal constants as my tastes have changed over the years. Perhaps its because Cash was able to revive his career so many times, not by “changing with the times”, but by simply going back to the root of what brought him success in the first place: his brilliant ability to write and relate songs to the masses. He wasn’t the voice of a generation or a geographical region. He was a voice for the entire world.

Cash once told Tom Petty that, as musicians and entertainers, it’s noble work that they do. As Cash has provided more moments and music in the soundtrack of my life than perhaps any other, I couldn’t agree more.


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Mitch Michaels
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