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Music / Johnny Cash

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The Man in Black.

"Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

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 R. "Johnny" Cash (born J. R. Cash;note  February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and musician who was associated primarily with Country Music but worked in a variety of genres including Gothic Country Music, Rockabilly, Blues, Folk, and Gospel. Easily one of the most popular and influential musicians of the 20th century, Cash was known for his deep baritone and distinctive black wardrobe, and for starting nearly all his concerts by saying "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," as well as for his relationship with fellow musician June Carter, whom he eventually married.

Born and raised in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash did a stint in the U.S. Air Force before embarking on his music career, moving to Memphis, Tennessee and signing his first record contract with Sun Records' Sam Phillips in 1954. He found his first success with the hit singles "Folsom Prison Blues" (1955) and "I Walk the Line" (1956). In 1958 he moved to Columbia Records, and in the early '60s he toured with June Carter and her family before releasing "Ring of Fire" (1963), his first crossover pop hit. "Ring of Fire" was co-written by June and was allegedly a reference to the fact the two had fallen in love by this time, despite both being married to other people.

In 1960, Cash would put out the first of many notable Concept Album releases throughout his career, Ride This Train, and these albums helped establish Cash as a pioneer of Progressive Country.

During this time, Cash struggled with substance abuse problems and eventually went public with his drug problems. He also dealt with the collapse of his first marriage and 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 (most notably in the early 1980s when he suffered severe internal injuries after being attacked by, of all things, an ostrich). He also began performing concerts at prisons, and even recorded there. The most famous of these prison albums was At Folsom Prison. Not long after he recorded the Folsom album, Cash and Carter finally married.

A subsequent prison concert album, At San Quentin, featured a comedy song called "A Boy Named Sue",note  which became Cash's biggest chart hit. From 1969–71 he hosted his own Variety Show on ABC, The Johnny Cash Show, and he continued to record prolifically through the 1970s, although the hits came less frequently. In 1986, he was dropped by his longstanding label Columbia Records and began an unsuccessful stint at Mercury Records. During this period his biggest success came as a member of the country supergroup The Highwaymen.

In 1988 Cash met Frank Zappa backstage and they were set to perform together on stage, but when Cash's wife got sick he couldn't be present, so Zappa covered "Ring of Fire" solo with his band. Their live rendition can be heard on Zappa's The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (1991).

Cash underwent a Career Resurrection in The '90s, beginning with a well-received collaboration with U2 on their song "The Wanderer" from Zooropa. In 1993, he collaborated with Charlie Daniels, Mark O'Connor, Travis Tritt, and Marty Stuart on "The Devil Comes Back to Georgia", a sequel to Daniels's 1979 hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". Then, under the guidance of popular Record Producer Rick Rubin and his label American Recordings, Cash recorded a series of albums later 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 even Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus", these albums earned him critical acclaim and a new, younger audience of Alternative Rock fans. The Music Video for "Hurt" was widely acclaimed.

Cash dabbled in acting from time to time, appearing in obscure films such as a film noir called Five Minutes to Live, a western opposite Kirk Douglas called A Gunfight, and also numerous TV movies and guest appearances on shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He also voiced the coyote in The Simpsons Season 8 episode "El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer". But he later said his proudest achievement was a religious film he wrote and produced in the early 1970s called Gospel Road.

He died in 2003 at the age of 71 (due to a myriad of health problems that set in during the late 1990s, he looked much older), only a few months after his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, died and only two weeks after recording his final songs. 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. He is one of only 11 artists to be in both the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

His life was eventually adapted into the biopic Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

Johnny Cash is the Trope Namer for:

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash and these are my tropes":

  • 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 another girl through a staged plane crash so he won't have to give away all their money to build a tabernacle. Much of Tommy's background is clearly based on Cash's own: he dresses all in black, he sings country/western and gospel, he's from Arkansas, he has a similar name, he was in prison, and he served in the Air Force.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: This is what gets the young man killed in "Don't Take Your Guns to Town". He swears to himself that he won't draw his gun unprovoked. Then he gets drunk. It goes downhill from there.
  • The Alleged Car: The car from "One Piece at a Time" is one of the weirder examples, built by smuggling individual car parts off the assembly line over a period of several decades.
    Now up to now my plan went alright
    'Till we tried to put it all together one night
    And that's when we noticed that somethin' was definitely wrong
    The transmission was a '53
    And the motor turned out to be a '73
    And when we tried to put in the bolts, all the holes were gone
  • Animal Stampede: "Stampede" is a song describing a cattle stampede from the perspective of a cowboy caught in the middle of one.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart."
  • Artistic License – Geography: If you committed murder in Reno (which is in Nevada), you would not be incarcerated at Folsom Prison (which is in California). However, the singer never says that that killing was the one he was imprisoned for, and the two locations aren't that far apart geographically.
  • As the Good Book Says...: "The Man Comes Around", "Belshazzar", "The Preacher Said Jesus Said" and literally dozens more. Cash considered himself as much a gospel singer as a country singer and aside from recording entire collections of religious songs, he even wrote and narrated The Gospel Road, a movie about the life of Jesus. Only a handful of Cash's albums do not include at least one religious song.
  • Audience Participation Song: The video project to rotoscope "Ain't No Grave" one frame at a time.
  • Badass Boast:
    • But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die...
    • "Ain't No Grave" is this as a song.
    • "I've Been Everywhere" qualifies to those who consider being well-traveled the mark of a badass.
  • Ballad of X: "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: A non-ironic application in real life. In the 1970s one of the most popular John and June duets was "Far Side of Jordan" in which June speculates as to what she might do if she ever dies before John (she'll wait for him on the banks of the River Jordan, amusing herself by drawing pictures in the sand until he arrives and they cross the river to enter Heaven together). No one could have predicted that June would indeed be destined to unexpectedly die several months before John. At least she didn't have to wait long.
  • Best Served Cold: The narrator of "Nobody Cared" takes his revenge on a cruel prison guard who used to hose him down with icy water, by doing the same to him.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Applies to June Carter Cash who, despite her comedic and goofy demeanour (partly an act, partly her genuine personality) was capable of writing songs of great darkness, such as her murder-suicide ballad "Tall Lover Man". In terms of Johnny, she co-wrote "Ring of Fire" (which is ostensibly about her relationship with Johnny, though others have suggested it may be about drug addiction or even sex, but regardless it's June's composition), as well as "Nobody Cared," a song Cash only recorded once at one of his prison concerts about a prisoner getting frustrated over his treatment in jail and, it is strongly implied, gets his revenge by beating the hell out of said guard and sticking a water pistol where the sun doesn't shine.
  • Biopic: A film was made of his life in 2005, appropriately titled Walk the Line.
  • 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 (because even though he's a mass murderer and bank robber, he didn't do the killing he was convicted for) 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.
    • "25 Minutes to Go" also falls into this trope. The Gallows Humor aspect is amplified when one considers he performed both songs during his famous Folsom Prison concert ("Joe Bean" appears on extended versions of the album), which carried out execution by hanging until the mid-1930s.
    • "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" is one of the funniest songs ever recorded by Cash while at the same time being one of the darkest.
    • "Like the 309" was the second-to-last song Cash ever recorded in a studio, being taped only a few weeks before his death. It has also been confirmed as the last song he ever wrote. The song takes a darkly humorous look at death and Cash's own health problems. Far from being depressing, it's a song in which Cash defiantly gives the Grim Reaper the middle finger.
  • Bowdlerize:
    • Most versions of "A Boy Named Sue" bleep out "son-of-a-bitch":
    I'm the *long bleep* that named you Sue!
    • His cover of "Hurt" changes "I wear this crown of shit" to the cleaner (and religious) "I wear this crown of thorns", though it still keeps the theme of humiliation.
  • Broken Aesop: "The One on the Right Is on the Left" claims to have a moral of "Keep your politics out of your music and everyone'll be happy." But the song then immediately mentions that the one member of the band who never got politically involved is the one who got drafted.
  • Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie: Cash recorded a version of the Trope Namer.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: "A Boy Named Sue."
  • Catchphrase: "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."
  • Christmas Songs: He recorded several albums of holiday music during his career, and even had a minor chart hit with his 1959 version of "The Little Drummer Boy".
  • City Shout Outs: A variation in "Cocaine Blues" from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, where he sings "99 years in the Folsom pen", instead of the original line "99 years in the San Quentin pen" (and of course, San Quentin was where he recorded his next live prison album).
  • Concept Album:
    • He released quite a few albums built around a theme, sometimes even linking the songs with monologues, starting with 1960's Ride This Train (a bunch of Americana-themed tunes, with Cash doing a running narration between the songs), and continuing on with Bitter Tears (songs about Native Americans), a few cowboy song albums, a few patriotic song albums, Blood, Sweat and Tears (songs about the working man), Everybody Loves a Nut (comedic songs), The Holy Land (a travelogue of a visit he made to Israel) and The Rambler (two men driving cross country in search of a lost love, which went one step beyond the monologue concept by linking the songs with scripted audio drama scenes). This was such a signature for him that one cash-in album of his Sun Records material released in The '60s, called All Aboard the Blue Train, was presented as one (songs about trains and railroads).
    • At Folsom Prison and "At San Quentin" feature several songs about prison, and others about death and isolation, and have the meta-concept of being recorded in front of an audience of prisoners.
  • Cover Album: American Recordings and its sequels had a few original tracks, but are mostly covers (including re-recordings of old Cash songs).
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: Cash did this a few times.
    • Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" originally sang the lyrics with harsh irony, but Cash's inflection is earnest, making the listener take the lyrics at face value.
    • Trent Reznor's youthful and bitter singing voice in "Hurt" make it clearly from the perspective of a young, self-destructive junkie reflecting on the wreckage he's made of his brief existence. Cash's voice when singing the same lyrics is old, rough and mournful, change the perspective to an old and dying man looking back on his whole life and regretting his choices — but also letting go of his pain and anger as he owns the hurt he caused and lets go of his "empire of dirt".
    • An interesting case with his own song "The Man Comes Around", the version released on American IV: The Man Comes Around is quite dark with references to the 4 Horsemen in the Book of Revelation at the beginning and the end, the version released on Unearthed 3: Redemption Songs is lighter and without the references to the 4 Horsemen. The version from American IV can be taken as a warning to those who have not repented and that the Lord will deal punishment to them while the version from Unearthed 3 can be taken as a reassurance to those who believe that the Lord is coming to save.
    • His cover of "Big Iron" from American IV. The original version is told as if from the perspective of young witness, either the Ranger himself or a citizen of Agua Fria, as it happens. Cash's cover is a slower, more relaxed version, as if the Ranger or witness is telling the story as an old man.
  • Crossover: The Johnny Cash Show season 2 episode "Captain Campbell's Medicine Show" (aired February 10, 1971) featured Hee Haw stars Archie Campbell, George "Goober" Lindsey, Minnie Pearl, Junior Samples, and David "Stringbean" Akeman. Cash would himself also make several guest-starring appearances on Hee Haw.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: He claimed to have dressed in black in sympathy for the suffering of others. (This was a case of real-life retconning as he had other reasons for adopting black as his color of choice.)
  • "Days of the Week" Song: "I Got Stripes":
    One, two, three... On a Monday, I was arrested; on a Tuesday, they put me in a cell; on a Wednesday, my trial was attested; on a Thursday, they said guilty and the judge's gavel fell...
  • Death Song: Many recordings in Cash's canon are told from the point of view of the soon-to-be-deceased ("Sam Hall", "25 Minutes to Go") or the recently deceased ("The Long Black Veil"). Gets even bleaker in some of his later recordings, such as "Like the 309" where he's referring to himself.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: "A Boy Named Sue" ends with Sue's long-lost dad accepting him because he pulled his gun before he did. Sue responds with the final lyric:
    "If I ever had a boy, I think I'm gonna name him after you!"
  • Defiant to the End: "Like the 309", his penultimate recording in his final session two weeks before his death, is a tongue-in-cheek middle finger to death.
  • Despair Event Horizon: "Folsom Prison Blues", "25 Minutes to Go" and "Hurt".
  • Died on Their Birthday: In the song "Joe Bean", the title character, in prison for robbery and murder, gets hanged on his birthday. The song ends with the prison staff singing, "Happy Birthday, Joe Bean" as the gallows lever is pulled.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": "A Boy Named Sue"
  • Downer Ending: Crops up in a few (make that many) of his songs. Notably 'Don't Take Your Guns To Town' (Billy Joe gets gunned down in the streets trying to live out a cowboy fantasy) and 'I Hung My Head' (The unnamed narrator is executed for the accidental murder of a rider). 'The Last Gunfighter Ballad' has the titular gunfighter get hit by a car.
  • Easter Egg: Cash's 1976 live album Strawberry Cake contains two noteworthy examples. Neither the liner notes - nor, surprisingly, many reviews or even retrospectives of Cash's career - mention that the album records the moment the show is interrupted midway through a June Carter Cash song by an IRA bomb threat, which they decided to leave on the record. A second Easter Egg on the same album is a rare performance of one of Cash's early recordings, "Another Man Done Gone" which for some reason is misidentified as "Dialogue #4" on the sleeve.
  • Embarrassing First Name: "A Boy Named Sue"
  • Face Death with Dignity: In "25 minutes to go", a condemned man awaiting execution is hoping for a last-minute pardon:
    But this ain't a movie so forget about me!
  • Flipping the Bird: A picture of Cash doing this was taken at the 1968 San Quentin concert. Rick Rubin made it famous by turning it into a 1998 ad in Billboard as a Take That! to "the Nashville music establishment and country radio" for ignoring Cash's Career Resurrection. The finger now has its own Facebook page. Cash later explained in liner notes for a reissue of At San Quentin that it was directed at a British TV crew who was filming the concert and got in his way.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: "A Boy Named Sue", yet again. Hell, how many tropes does this song fit into?
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Mass murderer Joe Bean is sentenced to death for "the one shooting that he never did."
  • Franken-vehicle: In "One Piece At A Time", the singer tells how he kept stealing pieces from the auto plant he worked at one piece a day for years.
    Well, it's a '49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '54, '55, '56
    '57, '58' 59' automobile
    It's a '60, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '66, '67
    '68, '69, '70 automobile
  • Gender-Blender Name: Sue in "A Boy Named Sue", given to him intentionally by his father to toughen him up.
  • Girl Next Door Turned Superstar: Played with in "Ballad of a Teenage Queen." The eponymous small-town girl has everything, including a loving, boy-next-door fiance. Then a movie scout comes to offer her stardom, so she goes to Hollywood, leaving him behind. While he doesn't make any move to follow her, they marry after she grows homesick and returns, implying that he never stopped loving her.
  • Going Cold Turkey: "When Uncle Bill Quit Dope", where Bill specifically goes through a pretty nasty withdrawal when he stops doing cocaine.
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: The protagonist of "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" is more confident than his skills justify, especially since he's sure he won't draw without provocation. A shot of strong liquor proves otherwise.
  • 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 and San Quentin, about how the entire justice system (or "justice", as he might have called it) is flawed. Cash didn't just sing about it; he once testified at a government committee looking into prison reform.
  • Hollywood CB: At the end of "One Piece at a Time".
  • Horsemen of the Apocalypse: referenced in "The Man Comes Around." Of course, the song is about the Second Coming.
  • "I Am" Song: "The Man In Black", where he explains his choice of clothing.
  • In-Joke: During a particularly raucous performance of "A Boy Named Sue" on The Johnny Cash Show (included on the DVD box set retrospective of the series), at one point Cash stomps on and breaks several stage lights. The joke here is that several years earlier at the same venue where the show was taped (the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, aka "The Grand Ole Opry"), during his drugged-out phase, Cash was banned from the Opry for doing much the same thing. The stomping on the TV show was clearly not accidental.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: "I Hung My Head", where he sings about a man who kills an innocent man by accident while practicing his aim.
  • Institutional Apparel: "I Got Stripes"
  • 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.
  • Jail Bake: Implied in "I Got Stripes":
    On a Monday, my mama come to see me. On a Tuesday, they caught me with a file.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: His Gospel Road film from 1973, shot in Israel, with Cash presenting the story of Jesus along with narrating and singing songs, leans heavily on this trope, especially with Cash's (apparently last-minute) decision to cast the film's director, the decidedly hippie-ish looking Robert Elfstrom, as Jesus.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • The whole idea of "God's Gonna Cut You Down." If you're a sinner, God is pissed and He's coming for you. It doesn't matter how long and far you run for, you will get the judgment you deserve.
    • "Joe Bean" is one extended punchline built around this. The subject of the song is wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. Never mind that he killed 20 men before he was 10 and his alibi on the day of the killing was that he was robbing a train.
  • 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.
    • "Like the 309", the second-last song Cash ever recorded includes a last request.
  • The Last Title: The Last Gunfighter Ballad, a 1977 album, and its title track.
  • Laugh Track: He 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.
  • Life Will Kill You: "The Last Gunfighter Ballad" ends with the eponymous gunfighter—now elderly and suffering from dementia—run down by a car while standing in the street.
  • Listing Cities:
    • "Big River" has the narrator following a woman from St. Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans on the Mississippi, and mentions all the stops along the way.
    • "I've Been Everywhere" has lyrics that are almost all names of towns.
    • "Wanted Man" features an exhaustive list of towns in which the singer is wanted for unspecified crimes.
  • Long List: The many locations Cash says he went in "I've Been Everywhere".
  • Longer-Than-Life Sentence: In Cocaine Blues Willy Lee is sentenced, for murdering his girlfriend, to:
    99 years in the Folsom pen
    99 years underneath that ground
  • Loudness War: "Hurt" has some very clear clipping going. Then again, Cash's voice has aged so much by then that the gain was pretty much necessary.
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "Delia's Gone" has a sweet, gentle, major-key tune, with lyrics describing how a man tied her to a chair and shot her multiple times. A similar song, "Banks of the Ohio", was recorded by Cash with The Carter Family, graphically describing in happy tones how a man drowns his wife.
    • Cash did this a few times when rerecording songs. In 1973 he re-recorded his dramatic "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" with an upbeat arrangement that managed to make the song sound even more menacing.
    • And has anyone actually listened to what the lyrics of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" are all about (beyond the famous chorus)? And there are live recordings where you can hear the audience being encouraged to sing along!
    • June Carter, his wife, was capable of great darkness in her songwriting (despite her often-goofy demenour). "Ring of Fire" is a very dark song when one learns it was written about her affair with Cash when both were married to other people; she also wrote "Nobody Cared", a vicious account of a man's imprisonment and his revenge on a cruel guard; and then there was "Tall Lover Man", in which she writes about a woman who discovers her boyfriend is married so she stabs him to death and then herself ("If lovin' me was a sport, then your life shall be short"). She recorded the song in 1964 and performed it on The Johnny Cash Show, which no doubt gave Johnny food for thought!
  • Miniscule Rocking: A couple of Cash's Sun Records singles (not album tracks, full singles), such as "My Treasure", ran less than 80 seconds, at a time when the average length of a 78 or 45 rpm single was between 2 and 3 minutes (a standard that continued into the 1960s). Later inverted by Cash in a big way when he started to record things like the 9-minute epic "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer".
  • Misery Builds Character: The basis of "A Boy Named Sue".
  • Mood Whiplash: Cash songs could on occasion turn on a dime from humor to despair, and vice versa. This also happened in concert. It was not uncommon for a hyper-depressing song like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (a spiritual about the death of one's mother) to be followed by something light and frothy like "A Boy Named Sue".
    • "City Jail" starts and ends as a humorous account of a man getting into a conflict with a purple haired woman. In between is a verse about him enduring unprovoked and violent police brutality.
    • Live recordings of Cash performing "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" from 1993-1994 show vivid evidence of this when the audience catches on to the fact the sombre-sounding song actually spoofs many tropes associated with Cash's death and despair ballads by cranking the misfortunes of the song's protagonist up to eleven.
    • Start listening to the album Once Piece at a Time, which is headlined by a hilarious song about an autoworker who makes his own car. Expect the rest of the album to be more of the same? Not after moving on to the utterly bleak "Committed to Parkview."
  • The Most Wanted: "Wanted Man" co-written by Cash and Bob Dylan is from the perspective of a fugitive. Whether he's on the run from the law or a string of lovers is left to interpretation.
  • Motive Rant: "Man In Black."
  • Motor Mouth:
    • In his rendition of "I've Been Everywhere".
    • The conclusion of "One Piece at a Time".
    • His 1968 spiritual "The Fourth Man" qualifies. Listen to him spout off the names of the three men featured in the song a mile a minute.
  • Murder Ballad: A large number of them:
    • "Folsom Prison Blues"
    • "Delia's Gone"
    • "Cocaine Blues"
    • "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"
    • Indeed, one greatest hits compilation was a 3 disc set labeled "God", "Love", and "Murder."
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: On the Folsom Prison live album, Cash introduces June Carter to sing the duet "Jackson" with him, and they talk a bit, leading to this exchange:
    Johnny Cash: Well, I like to watch you talk.
    June Carter: I'm talking with my mouth. It's way up here.
  • My Name Is Inigo Montoya: From "A Boy Named Sue":
    "My name is Sue! How do you do!? Now you gonna die!"
  • New Sound Album: American Recordings stripped away the signature "boom-chicka-boom" sound developed by the Tennessee Two in favor of very sparse acoustic recordings, moving him away from traditional country and more towards folk music.
  • Nickname:
  • Nothing Is Funnier: The original recording of "A Boy Named Sue" has one of its lines ("'Cause I'm the beeeeeeep that named you Sue!") bleeped out. Modern releases generally restore the line ("Son of a bitch"), but many listeners prefer the original, bleeped version, as "Son of a bitch", while impolite, is not a particularly bad phrase today. The bleep allows you to mentally insert whatever insult you like, which is almost inevitably harsher and funnier than the real one.
  • Numbered Sequels: The American albums (which started being numbered from the third one, Solitary Man, onwards)
  • Ode to Sobriety: Type 1 with "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and Type 2 with "Cocaine Blues."
  • One-Letter Name: His birth name was J. R. Cash, because his parents could not think of a good name at the time. Later, as the Air Force wouldn't take him without an actual first name, he changed it to John R. Cash (the middle initial still didn't stand for anything).
  • Person with the Clothing: Nick-named the Man in Black.
  • Pet the Dog: His free prison concerts, which brought him great acclaim and were deeply appreciated by the inmates at the prisons where he gave them.
  • Playing Drunk:
    • One of the most bizarre tracks in the Cash canon is "Cup of Coffee", from Cash's out-of-character comedy album, Everybody Loves a Nut. Essentially a comic monologue with a chorus, Cash plays a truck driver whose friend plies him with drink between verses, leading to Cash becoming increasingly more drunk-sounding as the song continues.
    • Cash's original recording of "Sam Hall" has him portraying a drunk, angry man who is about to hang.
    • "Bad News" from 1964 has Cash sounding drunk as well. Considering the substance abuse problems he was facing at the time, it's possible this was not an affectation.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you're gonna die!
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • "Cocaine Blues", released in 1968 on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, contains the line "I can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down", which was borderline-scandalous for a country music album in The '60s. (Indeed, Cash chose not to use the word when he recorded a studio version of the song a decade later.)
    • "A Boy Named Sue" has Cash saying "I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue." For years the word was bleeped out of the album and single releases of the song, along with the use of "damn" at the song's conclusion. Surprisingly at least one recording exists of Cash singing the uncensored version during an episode of his TV show, though presumably the broadcast version was bleeped. (For the record, the originator of the song, Shel Silverstein, uses the more family friendly phrase "heartless hound" in his version.)
  • Protagonist Title: "A Boy Named Sue".
  • Protest Song: "Man in Black" is very firmly one of these, decrying poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War.
  • Rail Enthusiast:
    • A noted one, as he spent the 80s doing advertisements for the Lionel Toy Train Company and making a whole documentary about the history of American railroading titled "Ridin' the Rails".
    • He recorded nearly as many songs about trains as he did prison, including one theme album, Ride This Train, an epic 9-minute song about a rail-line worker titled "The Ballad of John Henry", one of the definitive versions of Steve Goodman's "The City of New Orleans" and he self-identifies with the song "I've Got a Thing About Trains." Several of his train-themed recordings decry the decline of American rail.
    • "Like the 309", one of the very last songs he recorded, only two weeks before his death, featured a train.
  • Rapid Aging: A domino effect of health problems caused a real-life application of this trope with Cash. Compare footage and photos of him in 1998 (the last year he actively toured and performed) with his final live performance given in the summer of 2003. He was only 71 years old at the time of his death but even by the time he filmed the video for "Hurt" (a year earlier) he looked 91.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: A number of Cash's original songs were based upon events he experienced, such as "Starkville City Jail", which is his account of spending several hours in jail after being found picking flowers on private property in the middle of the night. After his wife June died in the spring of 2003, Cash continued to record for producer Rick Rubin (right up to 2 weeks before he died, in fact). However, given Cash saw his own passing approaching before long, many of the songs he recorded in his final months dealt with death and spirituality. By comparison, the final album released in his lifetime, American IV, while it certainly had some of this ("Hurt" being the marquee example), tended to be more wide-ranging with several tracks even reflecting Cash's badass reputation.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: He was a devout Christian for his entire performing career, but he never lost his edge, even in many of his religious songs. "The Fourth Man", "The Wanderer", and "The Man Comes Around" (to name only a few) stand alongside his best secular work.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: "A Boy Named Sue", yet again.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: In reviewing "Walk the Line," Roger Ebert was surprised to learn that Cash really had proposed to June Carter onstage during a concert. "It feels like the sort of scene screenwriters invent, but no."
  • 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.
  • Record Producer: He worked with a number of notable producers in his career, starting with Sam Phillips at Sun. Generally, he did his best work with Invisible Producer types who stayed out of the way and let Cash take the lead (Jack Clement, Don Law, Bob Johnston, Rick Rubin). His weaker material tended to be with producers who tried to impose a style on him (Larry Butler, Billy Sherrill).
  • Relieved Failure: In "A Satisfied Mind", the narrator remarks that he used to be rich and famous, but eventually lost everything in an undisclosed incident. Now he's much happier without his wealth, being finally satisfied with what he has - knowing that it's almost impossible to find "one rich man in ten with a satisfied mind."
  • Remix Album: Oddly enough, he was the subject of a tribute album, Johnny Cash Remixed, with several artists remixing his songs.
  • Retcon: Rare real-life example. In 1971 Cash released "Man in Black", a song in which he explains to fans why he almost always dresses in black, claiming it was in support of poor people and other causes. In reality he initially adopted black for practical reasons (easier to look clean during a long tour, etc.) and there are plenty of examples of pre-1971 TV performances where he does not wear black and only a year or so after he would pose for the cover of his album John R. Cash wearing a jean jacket.
  • Retired Gunfighter: "The Last Gunfighter Ballad"
  • Revenge Ballad:
    • The protagonist of "Oney" has suffered under the hands of a cruel and sadistic shop foreman for decades, and celebrates his retirement party with a bit of bare-knuckle boxing:
      All these year's I've been building muscles
      Oney's just been sittin' round, gettin' soft . . .
    • Subverted in "A Boy Named Sue", written by Shel Silverstein. Cash sings of spending his whole adulthood hunting down his runaway dad in order to kill him for "giving me that awful name," but ends up hugging and appreciating him in the end.
  • Rising Water, Rising Tension: "Five Feet High and Rising" is about a farm family forced to evacuate as their farm slowly disappears beneath flood waters.
  • Saved by the Church Bell: "Ain't No Grave" has a tolling church bell playing in the background of the chorus, signifying victory over death.
  • Self-Titled Album: An unusual variation with American Recordings, the first album in what would become known as the American series. It bears the name of Rick Rubin's American Recordings label.
  • "Sesame Street" Cred: Guested on Sesame Street in 1974 and 1992. In his first appearance he sang "Nasty Dan" (written by veteran Sesame writer Jeff Moss) with Oscar, then recorded it a year later for The Johnny Cash Children's Album. He also did a guest shot on The Muppet Show.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" tells the tale of a Real Life one, who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima. He turns to alcohol to dull the pain and it eventually kills him.
  • Shoe Shine, Mister?: The fictional shoeshine boy in "Get Rhythm."
  • Something Blues: "Folsom Prison Blues," "Cocaine Blues," "Rockabilly Blues," "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues," among others.
  • Stage Name: Cash's birth name was J.R. Cash, with the J.R. officially not standing for any specific name. In 1950 he was forced to adopt John as a first name when he enlisted in the Air Force. He continued to use this professionally after, modifying it to Johnny when he became a performer. Some references and websites attribute a name to the "R" but in reality Cash never did (though Don Reid of The Statler Brothers swears he saw a bill addressed to "John Rand Cash" when they stayed with Cash at his California home in The '60s).
  • Stealing from the Till: "One Piece at a Time" is about an assembly line worker who eventually steals enough car parts from his employer to make his own version, because his income isn't enough for him to buy a new car. It turns out to be a laughable chimera of automotive pieces from various generations.
    So the very next day when I punched in
    With my big lunchbox and with help from my friends
    I left that day with a lunchbox full of gears
    Now, I never considered myself a thief
    But GM wouldn't miss just one little piece
    Especially if I strung it out over several years
  • A Storm Is Coming: "The Man Comes Around," one of the most epic examples of all time.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "A Boy Named Sue" (usually) ends this way:
    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! Any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!
  • Suicide by Cop:
    • In "Out Among the Stars" a young, jobless man robs a liquor store... but he lets the cashier run away, and he waits in the store for the cops to come.
      Even though he knows they'll come with guns a-blazing
      already he can feel a great relief.
    • "The Wall" is about a man who tries to escape from prison. When he fails and is shot down, his friend calls it a suicide.
    • "The Walls of a Prison", a different song recorded a few years after "The Wall", depicts an identical event.
  • Super Group:
    • The Highwaymen, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.
    • Cash also recorded two albums with fellow veterans of Sun Records: one, Survivors, with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and another, Class of '55, with Perkins, Lewis and Roy Orbison.
    • An on-the-spot version occurred in 1956 with the now-famous "Million-Dollar Quartet," an impromptu jam session at the Sun Records studios by Cash, Perkins, Lewis, and a visiting Elvis Presley.
    • Cash's late-1960s/early-1970s touring group (also featured on The Johnny Cash Show) definitely qualifies, given that it included The Carter Family (considered the royal family of country music), the Statler Brothers (who scored their first major hits while at the same time touring with Cash), and Carl Perkins (who joined the group initially to replace guitarist Luther Perkins (no relation) when Luther died in a fire in 1968, but ultimately stayed with the band for years). Cash's live performances were usually preceded by the Carter Family, Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins performing solo bits as the opening act or often as a "half-time show" to give Cash a break.
  • Symbolically Broken Object: Seen in the music video for "Hurt", with the glass in the frame of his gold record for Live at Folsom Prison broken as if punched.
  • Take That!:
    • The 1984 single "Chicken in Black," is often claimed as being 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. The claim is that Cash recorded the song to force Columbia to drop him after years of indifference. The 2013 biography Johnny Cash: The Life and others have debunked this as an urban legend: Columbia offered the song to Cash, who loved it, and audiences loved it, and he even featured a music video for the song during one of his Christmas TV specials — clearly, the intent was to replicate the success of his previous comedy songs "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue". And he continued to record for Columbia for two more years.
    • 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". (Cash's entire tenure at American — and continuing after his death — is one big "take that" to an industry that had written him off.)
  • Tattered Flag: The song "Ragged Old Flag" "I take that back, I do like to brag, I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag!"
  • 13 Is Unlucky/You Are Number 6: "Thirteen."
  • Three Chords and the Truth: He was a noted progenitor of this style, especially when compared to his contemporaries. The American series is a particularly good example; the first in the series was recorded with only his voice and acoustic guitar.
  • Together in Death: Cash died four months after his wife. Though his official cause of death was "diabetes mellitus", it was suggested that his health had worsened due to grief over June's death. (Adding to the family's grief, one of his stepdaughters, Rosie Nix, would also die a month after her stepfather, five months after losing her mother, of carbon monoxide poisoning when she and another musician failed to properly ventilate the camper bus they were heating with a propane space heater.)
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: All over the place.
    • "I Walk the Line" jumps all over the place, in particular, actually ending a full octave below where it started. Every verse is in a different key. An urban legend arose that the humming heard between verses was intended to help either Cash or his band find the right key for the verse; Cash himself debunked this though he is recorded in concert stating the legend as well.
    • Another notable example is "Oney", which uses both of the most common increments for this trope: minor second (A-flat to A) and minor third (A to C).
    • "The Night Hank Williams Came To Town" is in E-major for the first 90 seconds of the song, but it modulates up to G major before the second verse and remains there until the end.
    • "I Got Stripes" modulates up for the last verse.
    • The San Quentin rendition of "The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago" starts in E-flat for Cash's and June's solos, but after the second chorus, it modulates to F for the last verse.
    • Live recordings of "Rock Island Line" often included Cash calling for the tempo to speed up to match the train racing away from the toll gate and across the plains.
    • "Rusty Cage" completely changes tempo and melody midway through the song.
  • Undignified Death: The man in "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" eventually does cry...and then dies from what is implied to be a severe case of dehydration.
  • Un-person: Attempted by the dying cowboy in "Streets of Laredo", who doesn't want his murderer identified in a letter home, so as to deny him notoriety. It may also be possible that the cowboy did not want his killing to initiate a Cycle of Revenge.
  • Verbal Tic: On many, many live recordings and TV appearances during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cash can be seen and heard coughing in the middle of songs and is not always successful in doing it off mic (he even "apologizes" to the mic for coughing into it on one recording). Some singers cough in order to clear their throats for singing, and the fact that many performances from The Johnny Cash Show show him doing this (one example being "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer") rather than a second take being recorded suggests this might be the case. Becomes far less noticeable in later years, although it made a return during his 1994 "comeback" performances at Glastonbury and elsewhere.
  • Vocal Evolution: He sounded extremely ragged after the health problems he endured in the late 1990s (namely, autonomic neuropathy and diabetes). His voice also noticeably deepened towards the end of the 1960s, only to rise in pitch during the mid-1970s (compare his vocals on albums such as 1975's Destination Victoria Station with 1971's Man in Black).
  • Women Are Delicate: Averted several times in his songs, but most assuredly in the conclusion to his epic "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" which ends with Henry's wife, after his death, taking his position on the railroad construction line and stating she can swing a hammer better than any steam drill.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Never Cash himself, but one of his popular songs was "Cocaine Blues" about a man on the run from the law after shooting his cheating girlfriend.