Times On-line
Johnny Cash September 13,2003
American icon who never lost touch with his roots
Appreciation By Bob Harris

THE death of Johnny Cash, after several years of ill-health, has silenced one of the most strongly resonant, musically open-minded and fiercely credible voices in the history of popular music.

He was known as a man’s man, a proud and patriotic Southern American who, despite his iconic status as a country music legend and his powerful image as “The Man in Black”, never lost touch with his roots.

He found his way into the music industry alongside Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and others in Memphis, recording for Sam Phillips’s Sun record label. Phillips’s death in July, following the death of Cash’s wife June Carter Cash in May, was a devastating double blow that was said by friends to have hit the ailing singer especially hard.

Cash, having been present at the birth of rock’n’roll in the mid-Fifites had a career that encompassed almost every shade of American roots music, from country through folk to gospel and blues, with life itself as the central theme. He sang blue-collar songs about miners, murderers and prisoners, sharecroppers, Native Americans and family men. If you were a friend of Cash’s, you were family.

He was unique in having been inducted into three music halls of fame: country, rock’n’roll and songwriters. But it was as a country music icon that his rugged worldwide reputation was established. He scored his first No 1 in America in 1956 with I Walk the Line, a song that set the benchmark for his musical and lyrical integrity, before going on to make the American Top 40 at least once every year for the next 34 years. At Folsom Prison, the 1968 Country Music Association’s album of the year, is regarded as a musical landmark. But for me, personally, the past few years have been his most resonant.

In 1994, Cash began work with Rick Rubin, a producer, on a series of albums called American. The albums comprise Cash originals, alongside songs by Hank Williams, Tom Petty, Nick Cave and U2.

The albums are made up of mostly reflective material on which Cash’s baritone voice, enriched by experience but ravaged by ill-health and fatigue, is heard sometimes singing, sometimes speaking the lyrics, in sparse, sombre, mostly acoustic arrangements. These are performances to send a shiver down the spine. One of the key moments is Hurt, a desperately sad and bitter song, written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The track was immediately adopted by American college and modern rock stations in a surge of awareness that culminated in the accompanying video winning in the best cinematography category at the recent MTV Awards.

No other artist that I can think of has reached across the decades with quite the force, longevity and integrity of Cash.

One can talk of the influence of Hank Williams and the work of Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But these are the only truly comparable names.

Johnny Cash was one of the greatest American icons of the 20th century, one whose true legacy will now be felt. His gruff, independent voice of truth will be sadly missed.


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