Country music patriarch Johnny Cash, the "Man in Black," has walked the line between rock and country since his early days as a rockabilly singer. Johnny Cash's songs' characteristic marching bass lines have influenced Waylon Jennings and others, while his deep, quavery baritone growl has become a trademark. A preeminent songwriter, Cash has been courted over the years by rock's elite, beginning with Dylan in the '60s. In 1994 Cash returned to the spotlight, boosted by the support of a whole new generation of fans — many of them alternative-rock aficionados — with the release of the stark (just vocals and acoustic guitar) American Recordings. Ill health slowed Cash down in the late '90s but did not stop his creative output.
The son of Southern Baptist sharecroppers, Cash began playing the guitar and writing songs at age 12. During high school, he performed frequently on radio station KLCN in Blytheville, Arkansas. Cash moved to Detroit in his late teens and worked there until he joined the air force as a radio operator in Germany. He left the air force and married Vivian Liberto in 1954; the couple settled in Memphis, where Cash worked as an appliance salesman and attended radio announcers' school.
With the Tennessee Two — guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant — he began recording for Sam Phillips' Sun label in 1955. The trio recorded "Cry, Cry, Cry" (Number 14 C&W, 1955), and followed it with "Folsom Prison Blues" (Number Five C&W, 1956). Later in 1956 came Cash's most enduring hit, the million-seller "I Walk the Line" (Number 17, 1956). At Sun, he was also part of an impromptu gospel sing-along with label mates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis that was widely bootlegged as The Million Dollar Quartet and finally released commercially in 1981 (on the U.K. label Charly).
Cash moved near Ventura, California, in 1958, signed with Columbia, and began a nine-year period of alcohol and drug abuse. He released a number of successful country and pop hits, among them "Ring of Fire" (Number One pop, Number One C&W, 1963), written by June Carter of the Carter Family and Merle Kilgore. By then, he had left his family and moved to New York's Greenwich Village. Late in 1965 Cash was arrested by customs officials for trying to smuggle amphetamines in his guitar case across the Mexican border. He got a suspended sentence and was fined. After a serious auto accident and a near fatal overdose, his wife divorced him. By then Cash had moved to Nashville, where he became friends with Waylon Jennings. Together they spent what both have described as a drug-crazed year and a half.
But in Nashville, Cash began a liaison with June Carter, who helped him get rid of his drug habit by 1967 and reconverted him to fundamentalist Christianity. By the time Cash and Carter married in early 1968, they had been working together regularly. They had hit duets with "Jackson" (Number Two C&W, 1967), "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" (Number Six C&W, 1967), and versions of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" (Number 58 pop, Number Four C&W, 1964) and Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" (Number 36 pop, Number Two C&W, 1970).
Cash's 1968 live album, At Folsom Prison (Number 13), became a million-seller in 1968. Bob Dylan invited him to sing a duet ("Girl From the North Country") and write liner notes for Nashville Skyline, and Dylan appeared in the first segment of ABC-TV's The Johnny Cash Show in June 1969. The highly rated series, which lasted two years, developed a reputation as an eclectic showcase of contemporary American music, with guests ranging from Louis Armstrong to Carl Perkins to Bob Dylan. Cash had a 1969 hit with Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue" (Number 2), a track from Johnny Cash at San Quentin; his best-selling album, the live LP was Number One for four weeks.
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