The Man in Black
Johnny Cash is remembered as a country legend, though many of his songs transcend into a number of genres, from rock & roll to blues. He was born in Arkansas, and was influenced by music from an early age, as his mother would sing hymns while working on the fields all day. He learned guitar at age 12, and when he came back from military service in 1954, he formed a band with Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, known as the Tennessee Two. They auditioned for Sam Phillips of Sun Records, and by 1955, Cash’s single “Cry Cry Cry” would read 14 on the Billboard Charts. He reached super fame with the release of “I Walk the Line,” which went to #1, and sold 2 million copies. It even crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #19. What I love about this song is how he changes pitch between the verses, until finally reaching an entire octave lower in the last verse. When I sing along to the song, I can never get that last verse. Cash said he wrote the song in 20 minutes, which was amazing since most of his songs are great because of their lyrics. The composition is often very simple.
By 1957, Cash became the first artist on the Sun label to release an LP, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, which featured the single “Folsom Prison Blues,” another #1 on the Country billboard charts. It was a folk blues song and a prison song, a mix which would go on to be often used in Cash’s music, and would become part of his legacy. The song featured the famous line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” which would kind of solidify Cash as a “bad boy” of country. Of course, my favorite recordings of the song would be at the actual Folsom Prison in 1968, because the sounds of the inmates cheering along to Cash just give a darker ambiance, especially coupled with those lyrics.
In 1958, Cash left Sun Records and signed to Columbia, and released his third album, The Fabulous Johnny Cash. After the success of this album, he returned to Sun to record his fourth album, Greatest!, where his singled “Get Rhythm” would reach number one on the country charts. It was a rockabilly song, just one of the few ways Johnny Cash delved into genres outside of plain old country.
By 1959, Johnny Cash had released his sixth album under Columbia, Songs of our Soil, which featured my favorite single, “Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses.” The song, as well as the rest of the album, talked about death. Like most of his songs, I love the song because of the lyrics and the way he sings them. Although he sings about death, there is a peacefulness in the way he sings and in the lyrics, because it is how loved ones are immortalized through beautiful memories, like planting a rose.
Johnny Cash went on to continued success throughout the 60s as he toured with the Carter family, as well as some hard times as he developed a dependence on drugs. However, throughout this, he has retained his legacy as a country icon.