I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God."
John Robert "Johnny" Cash (1932-2003), easily one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, was a country artist, singer-songwriter, and rock musician. Known for his deep baritone and distinctive wardrobe, he was nicknamed the Man in Black, and started almost all his concerts with the quote at the top of the page. He's also well-known for his relationship with fellow musician June Carter. His life was eventually adapted into the biopic Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.Cash found his first success with Folsom Prison Blues in 1957, which garnered hits with the title song and "I Walk the Line". Following that album's success, he toured with June Carter and her family before releasing "Ring of Fire", his first crossover pop hit.During this time, Cash struggled with substance abuse problems and eventually went public with his drug problems. He eventually tried to commit suicide while under the influence. He failed, and instead experienced an epiphany which led him to reconsider his choices. In 1968 he quit using drugs, though he would relapse on several occasions. He also began performing concerts at prisons, and even recorded there. The most famous of these prison albums was Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.Starting in The Nineties, Cash underwent a Career Resurrection. Under the guidance of Record ProducerRick Rubin, Cash recorded a series of albums nicknamed "the American series", starting with 1994's American Recordings. Marked by minimalist production (Recordings was recorded solely with a guitar and vocals) and covers of various bands, such as Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train", Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage", U2's "One", Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat", Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus", these albums earned him critical acclaim and a new, younger audience of Alternative Rock fans. He died in 2003 at the age of 71, only a few months after his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, died. By that time, he'd earned a reputation not only as a Cool Old Guy, but as one of the greatest legends in music history.
His work provides examples of:
Adam Westing: On Columbo, in "Swan Song," Cash plays Tommy Brown, who is one half of a husband-and-wife team of gospel-singing country stars who kills his wife and stepdaughter through a staged plane crash so he can be with his mistress and won't have to give away all their money to build a tabernacle.
Black Comedy / Gallows Humor: One good example is "Joe Bean", about a young man sentenced to death by hanging on his birthday. He's hoping for a pardon from the governor, but instead, the governor sends birthday greetings to him. And the last verse goes:
Happy Birthday Joe Bean Happy Birthday Joe Bean Happy Birthday dear Joe (sound of a gallows platform dropping and a rope tightening) Happy Birthday to you.
Catch Phrase: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Owned by Cash to such a degree that Trace Adkins once remarked: "I couldn't go out and say Hello, I'm Trace Adkins.; people would be like Aw, he's doing Cash."
Cool Old Guy: His comeback in the 90s cemented his status as this.
The Cover Changes The Meaning: Cash has done this a few times. "Personal Jesus" was originally a scathing look at religion, but Cash made it much more spiritual. Trent Reznor's version of "Hurt" is more about self-loathing than Cash's reflective contemplation on life as it comes to an end, looking back at what he's lost. Most of the songs on the posthumously released American VI: Ain't No Grave also become appropriated to Cash's (then) impending death.
Fan Nickname: He was affectionately referred to as "The Man in Black" for obvious reasons.
Fluffy the Terrible: "A Boy Named Sue", yet again. Hell, how many tropes does this song fit into?
Gender Blender Name: Sue in "A Boy Named Sue", given to him intentionally by his father to toughen him up.
Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: A lot of his songs deal with this theme, especially the ones he performed at prisons such as Folsom, about how the entire justice system (or "justice", as he might have called it) is flawed.
It Amused Me: The protagonist of "Folsom Prison Blues" is there because "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: The dying man in "Give My Love to Rose" tells the narrator to tell the man's wife to go find another man after he dies since it wouldn't be fair to her to force her to live alone after he's gone.
Last Request: "Give my Love to Rose" and "Streets of Laredo" feature a recently released convict and cowboy, respectively, asking a complete stranger to perform a task for them.
Laugh Track: For no particular reason, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" has a really fake sounding applause machine at the end. He also put out a re-release of "Get Rhythm" (it was previously just a b-side) that had sound effects dubbed in to give the impression that it was being done live.
Manipulative Editing: There's a famous moment on the Folsom Prison live album where the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" is followed by cheers from the audience — which are actually from a completely different part of the recording, and were spliced into the track during post-production.
Much of the album's cheering was edited in after the fact. Some fans point to At San Quentin as the superior live album due to its lack of editing.
Not just for that reason: San Quentin has better production, superior performances, more guest appearances (including the legendary Carl Perkins) and a better structured set. For those who consider Bob Wootton a more capable electric guitar player than Luther Perkins, there's that too.
Motor Mouth: In his rendition of "I've Been Everywhere".
Precision F-Strike: "Cocaine Blues", released in 1968 on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, contains the line "I won't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down", which was borderline-scandalous for a country music album in The Sixties.
Real Men Love Jesus: He was a devout Christian for the latter years of his life but he never lost his edge.
Reckless Gun Usage: "I Hung My Head" from American IV starts with a young man violating rules #1 and #2, resulting in the death of an innocent horeseman and his hanging for manslaughter. "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" is also about this.
Something Blues: "Folsom Prison Blues," "Cocaine Blues," "Rockabilly Blues," "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues," among others.
Stealing From The Till: "One Piece at a Time" which features an assembly line worker who eventually steals enough car parts from his employer to make his own version. It turns out to be a laughable chimera of automotive pieces from various generations.
A Storm Is Coming: "The Man Comes Around," one of the most epic examples of all time.
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun And I called him my pa, and he called me his son And I came away with a different point of view And I think about him, now and then Every time I try and every time I win And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him... Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!
Take That: In the 1980s, he released "Chicken in Black," a big Take That to his label, wherein Cash's brain is placed into a chicken who starts becoming famous, while he himself gets the brain of a killed bank robber and begins sticking up banks.
In-work, the song "Sam Hall" is about an unrepentant murderer using his last minutes before the hangman's noose to tell all present to go screw themselves.
Also, when Unchained won a Grammy Award for Best Country Album, American Recordings put out an ad containing an old photo of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera, with the caption "Johnny Cash and American Recordings would like to thank the Nashville establishment for their continued support".