Johnny Cash, the Man in Black

United States - Scott #4789 (2013)
United States – Scott #4789 (2013)

American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, and author John R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honor of multiple inductions in the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.

Cash was known for his deep, calm bass-baritone voice, the distinctive sound of his Tennessee Three backing band, which is characterized by train-sound guitar rhythms; a rebelliousness coupled with an increasingly somber and humble demeanor, free prison concerts, and a trademark, all-black stage wardrobe, which earned him the nickname “The Man in Black.” He traditionally began his concerts by simply introducing himself, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by his signature song “Folsom Prison Blues”.

Much of Cash’s music contained themes of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption, especially in the later stages of his career. His signature songs include “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring of Fire”, “Get Rhythm”, and “Man in Black”. He also recorded humorous numbers like “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue”; a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called “Jackson” (followed by many further duets after their marriage); and railroad songs including “Hey, Porter”, “Orange Blossom Special” and “Rock Island Line”. During the last stage of his career, Cash covered songs by several late 20th-century rock artists, notably “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode.

From late 1975 until August 1977 (moving just before Elvis Presley died), I lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with my younger sister and parents. Our home was close to The House of Cash recording studio and my mother used to have conversations with June Carter Cash at the local grocery store (I believe it was either an A&P or a Piggly-Wiggly). However, I was totally unaware of Cash’s music at the time as I was a fan of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles while my sister and mom loved Shaun Cassidy and Barry Manilow (my dad was eclectic with tastes ranging from ABBA to Pink Floyd). It was only much later that I discovered and grew to love Johnny Cash, particularly his American Recordings series in the 1990s.

Johnny Cash from the April 29, 1969, issue of LOOK magazine, photographed by Joel Baldwin.
Johnny Cash from the April 29, 1969, issue of LOOK magazine, photographed by Joel Baldwin.

Born J.R. Cash, he was the fourth of seven children, primarily of English and Scottish descent. When Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name.

In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal colony established to give poor families a chance to work land that they had a chance to own as a result. J.R. started working in cotton fields at the age of five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which led him later to write the song “Five Feet High and Rising”. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties. He had sympathy for the poor and working class.

Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for more than a week before dying on May 20, 1944, at the age of 15. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but Johnny and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day. His mother urged Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working since the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven.

Cash’s early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When young, Cash had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone after his voice changed. In high school, he sang on a local radio station. Decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music, which he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.

Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany, as a Morse Code operator intercepting Soviet Army transmissions. It was there he created his first band, named The Landsberg Barbarians. He was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant on July 3, 1954, and returned to Texas. During his military service, he acquired a distinctive scar on the right side of his jaw as a result of surgery to remove a cyst.

On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio, Texas. They dated for three weeks until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. In 1961, Johnny moved his family to a hilltop home overlooking Casitas Springs, California, a small town south of Ojai on Highway 33. He had previously moved his parents to the area to run a small trailer park called The Johnny Cash Trailer Park. Johnny’s drinking led to several run-ins with local law enforcement. Liberto later said that she had filed for divorce in 1966 because of Cash’s severe drug and alcohol abuse, as well as constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter.

Cash met singer June Carter, of the famed Carter Family while on tour, and the two became infatuated with each other. In 1968, 13 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June, during a live performance in London, Ontario. The couple married on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child together, John Carter Cash, born March 3, 1970.

Cash and Carter continued to work, raise their children, create music, and tour together for 35 years until June’s death in May 2003. Throughout their marriage, June attempted to keep Cash off of amphetamines, often taking his drugs and flushing them down the toilet. June remained with him even throughout his multiple admissions for rehab treatment and years of drug abuse. After June’s death, Cash believed that his only reason for living was his music.[37] He died four months after her.

In 1954, Cash and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. He auditioned for Sam Phillips by singing mostly gospel songs, only to learn from the producer that he no longer recorded gospel music. It was once rumored that Phillips told Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell”, although in a 2002 interview Cash denied that Phillips made any such comment. Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rockabilly style. In 1955, Cash made his first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade.

Sun Records promotional photo of Johnny Cash, 1955.
Sun Records promotional photo of Johnny Cash, 1955.

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived. They have since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet. In Cash: the Autobiography, Cash wrote that he was the farthest from the microphone and sang in a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.

Cash’s next record, “Folsom Prison Blues”, made the country Top 5. His “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. “Home of the Blues” followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun’s most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Phillips did not want Cash to record gospel, and was paying him a 3% royalty rather than the standard rate of 5%. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Lewis.

In 1958, Cash left Phillips to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records. His single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits, and he recorded a collection of gospel songs for his second album for Columbia. Cash left behind a sufficient backlog of recordings with Sun that Phillips continued to release new singles and albums from, featuring previously unreleased material until as late as 1964. Cash was in the unusual position of having new releases out on two labels concurrently. Sun’s 1960 release, a cover of “Oh Lonesome Me”, made it to No. 13 on the C&W charts.

When RCA Victor signed Presley, it also bought his Sun Records masters. When Cash departed for Columbia, Phillips retained the rights to the singer’s Sun masters. Columbia eventually licensed some of these recordings for release on compilations after Cash’s death.

Early in his career, Cash was given the teasing nickname The Undertaker by fellow artists because of his habit of wearing black clothes. He said he chose them because they were easier to keep looking clean on long tours.

In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, June, and Helen. June later recalled admiring him from afar during these tours. In the 1960s, he appeared on Pete Seeger’s short-lived television series Rainbow Quest. He also acted in and wrote and sang the opening theme for a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released as Door-to-Door Maniac.

Cash’s career was handled by Saul Holiff, a London, Ontario, promoter. Their relationship was the subject of Saul’s son’s biopic My Father and the Man in Black.

As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was deeply addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction.

Although he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash could still deliver hits due to his frenetic creativity. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. It was originally performed by June’s sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash. He said that it had come to him in a dream. Vivian Liberto claimed a different version of the origins of “Ring of Fire.” In her book, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, Liberto says that Cash gave Carter the credit for monetary reasons.

In June 1965, Cash’s camper caught fire during a fishing trip with his nephew Damon Fielder in Los Padres National Forest in California, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres and nearly caused his death. Cash claimed that the fire was caused by sparks from a defective exhaust system on his camper, but Fielder thinks that Cash started a fire to stay warm and in his drugged condition failed to notice the fire getting out of control. When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.”

The fire destroyed 508 acres (206 ha), burning the foliage off three mountains and driving off forty-nine of the refuge’s 53 endangered condors. Cash was unrepentant and claimed, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” The federal government sued him and was awarded $125,172. Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. He said he was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.

Although Cash cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, he stayed only one night on each stay. On May 11, 1965, he was arrested in Starkville, Mississippi, for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. (He used this to write the song “Starkville City Jail”, which he discussed on his live At San Quentin album.) While on tour that year, he was arrested October 4 in El Paso, Texas, by a narcotics squad. The officers suspected he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but found instead 688 Dexedrine capsules (amphetamines) and 475 Equanil (sedatives or tranquilizers) tablets that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because the pills were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.

In this period of the mid-1960s, Cash released a number of concept albums. His Bitter Tears (1964) was devoted to spoken word and songs addressing the plight of Native Americans and mistreatment by the government. While initially reaching charts, this album met with resistance from some fans and radio stations, which rejected its controversial take on social issues. The album was considered lost until the early 21st century. In 2011 a book was published about it, leading to a re-recording of the songs by contemporary artists and the making of a documentary film about Cash’s efforts with the album. This film was aired on PBS in February and November 2016. His Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965) was an experimental double record, mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash’s spoken narration.

Reaching a low with his severe drug addiction and destructive behavior, Cash was divorced from his first wife and had performances cancelled. He continued to find success. In 1967, Cash’s duet with June Carter, “Jackson,” won a Grammy Award.

Cash was last arrested in 1967 in Walker County, Georgia, after police found he was carrying a bag of prescription pills and was in a car accident. Cash attempted to bribe a local deputy, who turned the money down. The singer was jailed for the night in LaFayette, Georgia. Sheriff Ralph Jones released him after giving him a long talk, warning him about the danger of his behavior and wasted potential. Cash credited that experience with helping him turn around and save his life. He later returned to LaFayette to play a benefit concert; it attracted 12,000 people (the city population was less than 9,000 at the time) and raised $75,000 for the high school. Reflecting on his past in a 1997 interview, Cash noted: “I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me.”

Johnny Cash in 1968.
Johnny Cash in 1968.

In early 1968, Cash had a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave. He had attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deep into the cave, trying to lose himself and “just die,” but passed out on the floor. Utterly discouraged, he felt God’s presence in his heart and struggled out of the cave (despite exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, the incident represented his rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved into Cash’s mansion for a month to help him get off drugs. Cash proposed onstage to June on February 22, 1968, at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada. The couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, Kentucky. She had agreed to marry Cash after he had “cleaned up.”

Cash’s journey included rediscovery of his Christian faith. He took an “altar call” in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Reverend Jimmie Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow. According to longtime friend Marshall Grant, Cash did not completely stop using amphetamines in 1968. It was not until 1970 that Cash ended all drug use, maintaining that for a period of seven years. Grant claims that the birth of Cash’s son, John Carter Cash inspired Cash to end his dependence.

Cash began using amphetamines again in 1977. By 1983, he was deeply addicted again and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, for treatment. He stayed off drugs for several years, but relapsed again. By 1989, he was dependent and entered Nashville’s Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. In 1992, he entered the Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Center in Loma Linda, California, for his final rehabilitation treatment. Several months later, his son followed him into this facility for treatment.

Cash began performing concerts at prisons starting in the late 1950s. He played his first famous prison concert on January 1, 1958, at San Quentin State Prison. These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). Both live albums reached number 1 on Billboard country album music and the latter crossed over to reach the top of the Billboard pop album chart. In 1969, Cash became an international hit when he eclipsed even The Beatles by selling 6.5 million albums. In comparison, the prison concerts were much more successful than his later live albums such as Strawberry Cake recorded in London and Live at Madison Square Garden, which peaked at #33 and #39 on the album charts respectively.

The Folsom Prison record was introduced by a rendition of his “Folsom Prison Blues,” while the San Quentin record included the crossover hit single “A Boy Named Sue,” a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty song that reached No. 1 on the country charts and No. 2 on the U.S. Top Ten pop charts. The AM versions of the latter contained profanities which were edited out of the aired version. The modern CD versions are unedited thus making them longer than the original vinyl albums, though they retain the audience reaction overdubs of the originals.

Cash performed at the Österåker Prison in Sweden in 1972. The live album På Österåker (“At Österåker”) was released in 1973. “San Quentin” was recorded with Cash replacing “San Quentin” with “Österåker”. In 1976, a further prison concert, this time at Tennessee Prison, was videotaped for TV broadcast and received a belated CD release after Cash’s death as A Concert Behind Prison Walls.

Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison.
Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison.

From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The show was performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode; the Carter Family and rockabilly legend Carl Perkins were also part of the regular show entourage. Cash also enjoyed booking mainstream performers as guests; including Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (who appeared four times), James Taylor, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, Roy Orbison, Derek and the Dominos, and Bob Dylan. During the same period, he contributed the title song and other songs to the film Little Fauss and Big Halsey, which starred Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard, and Lauren Hutton. The title song, “The Ballad of Little Fauss and Big Halsey,” written by Carl Perkins, was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Cash had met with Dylan in the mid-1960s and became closer friends when they were neighbors in the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his audience. Cash sang a duet with Dylan on Dylan’s country album Nashville Skyline and also wrote the album’s Grammy-winning liner notes.

Another artist who received a major career boost from The Johnny Cash Show was Kris Kristofferson, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a singer-songwriter. The closing program of The Johnny Cash Show was a gospel music special. Guests included the Blackwood Brothers, Mahalia Jackson, Stuart Hamblen and Billy Graham.

By the early 1970s, he had crystallized his public image as “The Man in Black.” He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in contrast to the costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day: rhinestone suits and cowboy boots. In 1971, Cash wrote the song “Man in Black,” to help explain his dress code:

We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose
In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a man in black.

He wore ‘black’ on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,” and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs. “And,” Cash added, “with the Vietnam War as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been’ … Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position … The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

He and his band had initially worn black shirts because that was the only matching color they had among their various outfits. He wore other colors on stage early in his career, but he claimed to like wearing black both on and off stage. He stated that political reasons aside, he simply liked black as his on-stage color. The outdated U.S. Navy’s winter blue uniform used to be referred to by sailors as “Johnny Cashes,” as the uniform’s shirt, tie, and trousers are solid black.

In the mid-1970s, Cash’s popularity and number of hit songs began to decline. He made commercials for Amoco and STP, an unpopular enterprise at the time of the 1970s energy crisis. In 1976 he made commercials for Lionel Trains, for which he also wrote the music. However, his first autobiography, Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. A second, Cash: The Autobiography, appeared in 1997.

His friendship with Billy Graham led to Cash’s production of a film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated. It was released in 1973. Cash viewed the film as a statement of his personal faith rather than a means of proselytizing.

Cash and June Carter Cash appeared several times on the Billy Graham Crusade TV specials, and Cash continued to include gospel and religious songs on many of his albums, though Columbia declined to release A Believer Sings the Truth, a gospel double-LP Cash recorded in 1979 and which ended up being released on an independent label even with Cash still under contract to Columbia. On November 22, 1974, CBS ran his one-hour TV special entitled “Riding The Rails”, a musical history of trains.

He continued to appear on television, hosting Christmas specials on CBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Later television appearances included a starring role in an episode of Columbo, entitled “Swan Song”. He and June appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, entitled “The Collection”. He gave a performance as John Brown in the 1985 American Civil War television mini-series North and South. Johnny and June also appeared in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in recurring roles.

He was friendly with every U.S. President starting with Richard Nixon. He was closest to Jimmy Carter, with whom he became close friends and who was a distant cousin of his wife, June Carter Cash.

When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1970, Richard Nixon’s office requested that he play “Okie from Muskogee” (a satirical Merle Haggard song about people who despised youthful drug users and war protesters), “Welfare Cadillac” (a Guy Drake song which denies the integrity of welfare recipients), and “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash declined to play the first two and instead selected other songs, including “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (about a brave Native American World War II veteran who was mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his own compositions, “What Is Truth” and “Man in Black”. Cash wrote that the reasons for denying Nixon’s song choices were not knowing them and having fairly short notice to rehearse them, rather than any political reason. However, Cash added, even if Nixon’s office had given Cash enough time to learn and rehearse the songs, their choice of pieces that conveyed “anti-hippie and anti-black” sentiments might have backfired. In his remarks when introducing Cash, Nixon joked that one thing he’d learned about the singer was one didn’t tell him what to sing.

Johnny Cash was the Grand Marshal of the United States Bicentennial parade. He wore a shirt from Nudie Cohn which sold for $25,000 in auction in 2010. After the parade he gave a concert at the Washington Monument.

In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame’s youngest living inductee at age 48. But during the 1980s, his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, although he continued to tour successfully. In the mid-1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making three hit albums which were released beginning with the originally titled Highwaymen in 1985, followed by Highwaymen 2 in 1990, and concluding with Highwaymen – The Road Goes on Forever in 1995.

During that period, Cash appeared in a number of television films. In 1981, he starred in The Pride of Jesse Hallam, winning fine reviews for a film that called attention to adult illiteracy. In the same year, Cash appeared as a “very special guest star” in an episode of The Muppet Show. In 1983, he appeared as a heroic sheriff in Murder in Coweta County, based on a real-life Georgia murder case, which co-starred Andy Griffith as his nemesis and featured June Carter in a small but important role. Cash had tried for years to make the film, for which he won acclaim.

Cash relapsed into addiction after being administered painkillers for a serious abdominal injury in 1983 caused by an unusual incident in which he was kicked and wounded by an ostrich he kept on his farm.

At a hospital visit in 1988, this time to watch over Waylon Jennings (who was recovering from a heart attack), Jennings suggested that Cash have himself checked into the hospital for his own heart condition. Doctors recommended preventive heart surgery, and Cash underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both recovered, although Cash refused to use any prescription painkillers, fearing a relapse into dependency. Cash later claimed that during his operation, he had what is called a “near death experience”.

Cash’s recording career and his general relationship with the Nashville establishment were at an all-time low in the 1980s. He realized that his record label of nearly 30 years, Columbia, was growing indifferent to him and was not properly marketing him (he was “invisible” during that time, as he said in his autobiography).

In 1984, Cash released a self-parody recording titled “Chicken in Black,” about Cash’s brain being transplanted into a chicken and Cash receiving a bank robber’s brain in return. Biographer Robert Hilburn, in the 2013-published Johnny Cash: The Life disputes the claim made that Cash chose to record an intentionally poor song in protest of Columbia’s treatment of him. On the contrary, Hilburn writes, it was Columbia that presented Cash with the song, which Cash — who had previously scored major chart hits with comedic material such as “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece at a Time” — accepted enthusiastically, performing the song live on stage and filming a comedic music video in which he dresses up in a superhero-like bank robber costume. According to Hilburn, Cash’s enthusiasm for the song waned after Waylon Jennings told Cash he looked “like a buffoon” in the music video (which was showcased during Cash’s 1984 Christmas TV special), and Cash subsequently demanded that Columbia withdraw the music video from broadcast and recall the single from stores — interrupting its bona fide chart success — and termed the venture “a fiasco.”

Between 1981 and 1984, he recorded several sessions with famed countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill (who also produced “Chicken in Black”) which were shelved; they would be released by Columbia’s sister label, Legacy Recordings, in 2014 as Out Among the Stars. Around this time, Cash also recorded an album of gospel recordings that ended up being released by another label around the time of his departure from Columbia (this due to Columbia closing down its Priority Records division that was to have released the recordings).

After more unsuccessful recordings were released in 1984–85, Cash left Columbia (At least as a solo artist; he continued to record for Columbia on non-solo projects until as late as 1990, recording a duets album with Waylon Jennings and two albums as a member of The Highwaymen.)

Johnny Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee, circa 1977.
Johnny Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee, circa 1977.

In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create the album Class of ’55; according to Hilburn, Columbia still had Cash under contract at the time, so special arrangements had to be made to allow him to participate. Also in 1986, Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul and his conversion to become the Apostle Paul. He recorded Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament in 1990.

After Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991. During this time, he recorded an album of new versions of some of his best-known Sun and Columbia hits, as well as Water from the Wells of Home, a duets album that paired him with, among others, his children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, as well as Paul McCartney. A one-off Christmas album recorded for Delta Records followed his Mercury contract.

His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity with an audience which was not traditionally considered interested in country music. In 1991, he sang a version of “Man in Black” for the Christian punk band One Bad Pig’s album I Scream Sunday. In 1993, he sang “The Wanderer” on U2’s album Zooropa which was the closing track. According to Rolling Stone writer Adam Gold, “The Wanderer” — written for Cash by Bono — “defies both the U2 and Cash canons, combining rhythmic and textural elements of Nineties synth-pop with a Countrypolitan lament fit for the closing credits of a Seventies western.”.

Although no longer sought after by major labels, he was offered a contract with producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, which had recently been rebranded from Def American, under which name it was better known for rap and hard rock. Under Rubin’s supervision, he recorded American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his Martin Dreadnought guitar — one of many Cash played throughout his career. The album featured covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin including “Down There by the Train” by Tom Waits. The album had a great deal of critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash wrote that his reception at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career. This was the beginning of a decade of music industry accolades and commercial success. He teamed up with Brooks & Dunn to contribute “Folsom Prison Blues” to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization. On the same album, he performed the Bob Dylan favorite “Forever Young.”

Cash and his wife appeared on a number of episodes of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He also lent his voice for a cameo role in The Simpsons episode “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)”, as the “Space Coyote” that guides Homer Simpson on a spiritual quest.

In 1996, Cash enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and released Unchained (also known as American Recordings II), which won the Best Country Album Grammy in 1998. The album was produced by Rick Rubin with Sylvia Massy engineering and mixing. A majority of Unchained was recorded at Sound City Studios and featured guest appearances by Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, and Marty Stuart. Believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography Man in Black, he wrote Cash: The Autobiography in 1997.

In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy–Drager syndrome, a form of multiple system atrophy. According to biographer Robert Hilburn, the disease was originally misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease, and Cash even announced to his audience that he had Parkinson’s after nearly collapsing on stage in Flint, Michigan, on October 25, 1997. Soon afterwards, his diagnosis was changed to Shy–Drager, and Cash was told he had approximately 18 months to live. The diagnosis was later again altered to autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. The illness forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs.

During the last stage of his career, Cash released the albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). American IV included cover songs by several late 20th-century rock artists, notably “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails commented that he was initially skeptical about Cash’s plan to cover “Hurt”, but was later impressed and moved by the rendition. The video for “Hurt” received critical and popular acclaim.

June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at the age of 73. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record, completing 60 more songs in the last four months of his life, and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. At the July 5, 2003, concert (his last public performance), before singing “Ring of Fire”, Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage:

The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.

Cash continued to record until shortly before his death. His final recordings were made on August 21, 2003, and consisted of “Like the 309”, which appeared on American V: A Hundred Highways in 2006, and the final song he completed, “Engine 143”, which was recorded for his son John Carter Cash for a planned Carter Family tribute album.

While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Cash died of complications from diabetes at approximately 2:00 a.m. CT on September 12, 2003, aged 71 — fewer than four months after his wife. It was suggested that Johnny’s health worsened due to a broken heart over June’s death. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

The graves of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Photo taken on January 23, 2013.
The graves of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Photo taken on January 23, 2013.

In June 2005, Cash’s lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville was put up for sale by his estate. In January 2006, the house was sold to Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb and wife Linda, and titled to their Florida limited liability company for $2.3 million. The listing agent was Cash’s younger brother, Tommy. On April 10, 2007, during major renovation works carried out for Gibb, a fire broke out at the house, spreading quickly due to a flammable wood preservative that had been used. The building was completely burnt down.

One of Cash’s final collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously on July 4, 2006. The album debuted in the No.1 position on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for the week ending July 22, 2006. On February 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday, the Cash Family, Rick Rubin, and Lost Highway Records released his second posthumous record, titled American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

The main street in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Highway 31E, has been renamed to Johnny Cash Parkway. The Johnny Cash Museum, located in one of Cash’s properties in Hendersonville until 2006, dubbed the House of Cash, was sold based on Cash’s will. Prior to this, having been closed for a number of years, the museum had been featured in Cash’s music video for “Hurt.”

Scott #4709 was the second release in the United States Postal Service’s Music Icons series. Begun in 2013, it pays tribute to performers representing a variety of eras and genres. All the stamps and panes in the series are the same size, with the panes designed to look like record sleeves. The Johnny Cash Forever stamp pays the 1-ounce first-class letter rate, which was 46 cents at the time of release. It was issued on June 5, 2013, in Nashville, Tennessee, with the First Day of Issue ceremonies held at the Ryman Auditorium where several episodes of The Johnny Cash Show were recorded between 1969 and 1971.

Designed by Greg Breeding, the stamp includes a photograph taken for the 1963 album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. The stamp is mostly dark, paying homage to Cash’s nickname, “The Man in Black.” The stamp and full pane were designed to resemble a 45-RPM record sleeve, with the pane picture part of a record peeking through the top. The self-adhesive stamps were printed by Avery Dennison using the photogravure process in sheets 0f 128 stamps in eight panes of 16. There were 60,000,000 stamps perforated with serpentine die cuts in a gauge of 10¾.

In 2012, the USPS released some issues as press sheets. The sheets with die-cut perforations were issued in limited quantities. To the surprise of many collectors, a small number of press sheets were then released imperforate. The uncut sheets were only available in Kansas City, Missouri, yet most sold out immediately. In an instant, the imperforate stamp sheets became modern rarities.

In a controversial move, the editors of the Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue announced they would not list or give numbers to these stamps because they did not fit Scott guidelines. This decision was strongly debated since the imperforate stamps are valid for postage. They eventually decided to give the stamps minor numbers and have continued issuing imperforates in the years since. The Johnny Cash stamp was also issued in imperforate press sheets, listed as Scott #4789a.

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