The name Johnny Cash means country music for millions of people around the world. If country music is the poetry of America's common man, then surely Johnny Cash is its poet laureate. Through words and music, for nearly half a century, he has expertly captured the moods, the thoughts, the struggle of the American working people--the farmers, the truckers, the factory workers. And he is the finest interpreter of his own works. "He's like President Lincoln or somethin'," said country music star Merle Haggard. "I was in the prison band when I first saw him in San Quentin. I was impressed with his ability to take five thousand convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers. That's pretty hard to do!"
His talent and magnetism combined have led country music into all segments of the entertainment industry and to as diverse an audience as country music has ever had. He has been a television star with enormously popular specials and variety series. Rocks stars, folk singers, bluesmen, and crooners have sung his songs. He has composed songs and soundtracks for films and has starred in several as well. And he has told the story of country music and of his life with an autobiography, a novel, and film documentaries.
As expected, a career of such variety and length, which has produced forty-years worth of hits--from the '50's "Folsom Prison Blues" to the '80's "Highwayman,"--has been richly rewarded. To date, Cash has received seven Grammy Awards, the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award, numerous American Music Awards, a Gospel Music Dove Award, a whopping sixteen Gold and Platinum records, and he has been honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It all started on a much humbler note.
Cash's youth was one of poverty and a struggle for survival on a daily basis. The family was bent by years of sharecropping and tragedy. He lost two brothers while he was young, and he himself nearly died of starvation in his infancy. Life consisted of a dirt farmer's shack, cotton patches to be hoed and weeded, and a fundamentalist bible rearing by a determined mother and a work-wearied father. By the time he was 10 he was hauling water for a road gang and pulling a nine-foot cotton sack when he was 12. But even then he was already showing signs of talent. His early songs emulated some of the country stars he sometimes heard on the radio, and while attending high school he sang on a radio station near Blytheville, Arkansas.
With the advent of the Korean War he enlisted in the Air Force and found himself assigned to Germany. There, he bought his first guitar and while learning to play it, he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues." It would still be several years before the world would hear his first hit.
Back in the United States he settled in Memphis, Tennessee, set out on a marriage that would not last, and formed a trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant that would. Thus began the long and arduous journey of auditioning for record labels. Several false starts and many rejections later, the trio landed a contract with Sam Phillips of Sun Records and by 1956 they had scored an impressive five top-10 hits in just one year, including "I Walk the Line." Throughout the next two decades, as a member of a group, a solo artist, singing his own material or that of others, Cash became the leading spokesman for country music. And he took a stand on the social issues of the '60s as few of his country-music contemporaries did. As Robert K. Oermann notes in The Roots of Country Music, Cash's "towering, from-the-soil image made him a massively popular icon to the alienated, idealistic youth of the era." He was a regular on network television, singing in variety series and specials, acting in such shows as "Columbo" and movies-of-the-week, narrating documentaries on the American railroads and Christianity and the Holy Land. On the big screen he was seen opposite Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight. He filled large concert halls--from the Los Angeles Forum to Carnegie Hall--throughout the United States and abroad. In 1969 alone he won Country Music Awards for Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist, Best Group, Best Album, and Best Single. A few of the legendary records from this prolific period are "The Rebel" (1961), "Busted" (1963), "Ring of Fire" (1963), "Understand Your Man (1964), "The Sons of Katie Elder," (1965), "Jackson" (1967), "A Boy Named Sue" (1969), "If I Were a Carpenter" (1970), "Man in Black" (1971), and "A Thing Called Love" (1972). Some of these hits were duets with June Carter, a daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, a country music legend. June and Johnny became close and married in 1967 creating one of the happiest unions in country music. From then on they were almost inseparable in a family show that often featured June's sisters, mother, the Statler Brothers, and a number of other excellent artists.
Perhaps his most noteworthy achievement, though, is the profound influence he has had on successive generations of song artists. From Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson to Dolly Parton and his own daughter Rosanne Cash, hundreds of songwriters and performers proudly acknowledge their debt to the legend. "We learned more from Johnny Cash than you can learn from any other one single person," said Harold Reid of the Statler Brothers. Marty Stuart, one of today's leading country artists, says "Johnny Cash is the reason I play country. He is different. He is bigger than life."