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Johnny Cash is widely believed to have been one of the best American musicians of the entire 20th century. While he is known today first and foremost as a country superstar, Cash’s music is rooted in elements of nearly every genre, from rock ‘n’ roll to blues and folk. (In fact, gospel music factored prominently into Cash’s childhood and would continue to influence his career years later.) As a testament to his wide-reaching success, Cash was inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame, and in the greater Nashville area alone, no fewer than two different museums – including one that was recently opened on the premises of Cash’s former farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee – continue to draw visitors to learn about his legacy. Here, an introduction to the ‘Man In Black’ and his diverse, storied musical career.
In 1954, following a three-year stint serving in the United States Air Force, Cash and his then-wife Vivian Liberto moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Cash studied to be a radio announcer by day and played shows by night. Cash eventually auditioned for Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records; while Phillips purportedly rejected Cash’s initial gospel-style songs, Phillips was eventually won over by Cash’s melding of country and rock ‘n’ roll. Cash signed with Sun and in 1955 released his first two singles: ‘Hey Porter‘ and ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’. While the former failed to garner much enthusiasm for record executives at Sun, ‘Cry! Cry! Cry’ was met with both executive and commercial success, entering the charts at #14 and selling over 100,000 copies just in the American South. Today, this song is often seen as the one that catalyzed Cash’s legendary music career.
As Cash’s first number one hit on the Billboard country charts – and number 19 on the US pop charts – ‘I Walk The Line’ was Cash’s first mega-hit, cross-genre single. The song sold over two million copies and in 2004 was ranked #30 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Cash wrote the song while backstage at a show in Texas, and in later interviews the then-recently-married Cash would reveal that the song was meant as a sort of pledge of devotion.
After three years recording with Sun Records, Cash began to feel trapped by the small royalties and lack of freedom to record the gospel music he had long been passionate about. As a result, he moved to Columbia Records in 1958 and released ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ shortly thereafter. A song about a cowboy who is killed in a gunfight in a saloon despite his mother’s warnings to leave his guns at home, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ once again demonstrated Cash’s cross-generic appeal, as it peaked at number one on the Billboard country charts, 32 on the pop charts, and was later chosen as one of the Top 100 Western Songs of All Time.
Largely regarded as Cash’s biggest hit of all time, ‘Ring of Fire’ was written by songwriter Merle Kilgore and Cash’s second wife, June Carter Cash. While the song was initially recorded by June’s sister, Anita Carter, Johnny would later record and release his own version of the song – adding the mariachi-style horns that the song is known for today – on his 1963 album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. The song stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for seven consecutive weeks and even topped German and Swiss international charts.
Originally written by folk singer Peter La Farge, ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ revolves around one of the marines (Ira Hayes) who raised the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima. While the song has been recorded by a number of different artists, Cash’s version – which appeared on his experimental, concept-focused record Bitter Tears: Ballad of the American Indian – was the most successful. ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ was the album’s only single, and it peaked at number three on the country charts. The song, along with the rest of the album, stands out amongst Cash’s discography for its singular emphasis on the myriad tribulations and injustices faced by Native Americans throughout U.S. history.
‘Jackson’ was originally written and recorded in 1963 by American songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler. In 1967, Cash and his second wife June Carter Cash recorded their own version of the song, which rocketed to number two on the Billboard country charts. The song tells the story of a married couple whose ‘fire’ has dampened; today, Johnny and June’s version is perhaps most well known for its use in the 2011 film The Help.
‘A Boy Named Sue’ stands out among Cash’s countless hit singles in part for its unique origins: written by popular American children’s book author Shel Silverstein, Cash recorded the song during a performance at the San Quentin State Prison in California. The song became so popular that it launched to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – the highest ranking of any Cash single – in addition to topping charts internationally, including in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K.
Cash is still known today, decades after his death, as the ‘Man in Black.’ And while this stems in large part from his performance attire – he was known to dress in all black for his shows – his 1971 album Man in Black serves as a more nuanced explanation for the nickname. The single of the same name, in particular, is a protest song inspired by a conversation with audience members at a show at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. In the song, which peaked at number three on the Billboard country charts, Cash delves into a range of critical social issues, including racism, the Vietnam War, and the economic divide between the American haves and have-nots.
While not technically a solo project for Cash, ‘Highwayman’ was nonetheless one of Cash’s most successful late-career hits. Originally written by American songwriter Jimmy Webb, ‘Highwayman’ tells the story of a soul with four identity distinct iterations throughout history. The song served as an inspiration and catalyst for the star-studded musical group formed by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, who would ultimately call themselves The Highwaymen. Their first album was the platinum bestseller Highwayman, and the single of the same name spent 20 weeks at the number one spot on the Billboard country charts.
‘Hurt’ may have originally been a Nine Inch Nails song, but today the version that continues to draw the most critical acclaim is Cash’s legendary cover. The song was released on one of Cash’s final albums of his lifetime, American IV: The Man Comes Around, and the accompanying video, which was composed of poignant images from Cash’s own life, won the award for best music video during that year’s Grammy Awards. And while Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor had initially been wary of Cash’s proposal to cover the single (noting a concern that it might be a bit ‘gimmicky’) the song faced near instant meteoritic success and is still today recognized as one of the best music videos of all time.