Personalities | Johnny Cash | Nashville & Beyond | Country

One of the most revered figures in modern country music, Johnny Cash’s vast, half-century-long body of work as both a songwriter and singer encompasses an extensive tapestry of musical Americana – everything from prison songs and railroad ballads, to folk-style broadsides and even clever novelty tunes like ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

As a singer, he immortalized a style that was straightforward and unadorned, yet magisterial in its emotional gravitas, melancholy sonorousness and world-weary earnestness. More than a mere country star, Cash was an American master and one of the true voices of his generation.

Country Heritage

Cash was born into a family of cotton farmers in Kingsland, Arkansas, on 26 February 1932 and was weaned on the gospel music his family sang at church. He was also influenced by the music of an older generation of country artists like The Carter Family and Hank Snow, who he heard on the radio. His early life was informed by tragedy. An older brother, Jack, was killed in a grisly sawmill accident when Cash was still a child, and he seemed to carry the emotional scars of this incident all through his life.

In 1949, after graduating from high school, Cash briefly worked in an auto body plant in Detroit, Michigan. But he really began writing songs, singing and playing guitar in earnest while serving in Germany with the US Air Force in the early 1950s. Back in civilian clothes in 1954, he married for the first time and worked briefly as an appliance salesman in Memphis, Tennessee. It was here that he teamed up with electric guitarist Luther Perkins and stand-up bassist Marshall Grant and began performing gospel music on a local radio station.

Cash and his new backing duo also auditioned and signed with legendary Memphis producer Sam Phillips, who had recently produced and released Elvis Presley’s first hits on his own Sun Records label. From the mid-1950s, until he signed with Columbia Records in 1958, Cash had his initial success with Sun-released hits such as ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ (1955), ‘I Walk The Line’ (1956), ‘Ballad Of A Teenage Queen’ (1958) and ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (1958).

A Prolific Career

From the early 1960s until his death, Cash amassed a huge body of recorded work that included excursions into all manner of rural musical idioms and byroads – everything from folksy train and prison songs like ‘Orange Blossom Special’ (1965) and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1968), to dramatic ballads of the Old West (‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’, 1959). The social awareness evinced in his music also earned him credibility within the 1960s folk music boom. He occasionally performed and recorded with his friend, Bob Dylan.

After bouncing back from a longstanding addiction to pills, Cash found renewed emotional stability and inspiration with his second wife, June Carter, of the illustrious Carter Family, whom he married in 1968. From 1969 to 1971, his fame was enlarged as he hosted his own weekly, prime time musical...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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