Johnny Cash is one of the most iconic musicians who ever lived, highly influential in both country music and rock and roll. He was known as the “Man in Black” due to his penchant for dark clothing, and he achieved a certain level of fame due to a personality composed of equal parts rebelliousness and somber humility.
The first single that would ever bring Cash to the top of the charts was “I Walk the Line,” released in 1956, although he had reached number four with “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955. The music was darker than anything usually heard in country music, and Cash was quickly established as one of the more unique musicians working within the industry. He would reach the top of the charts again over the next couple of years with songs such as “Big River” in 1958, later followed by the timeless classic “Ring of Fire” in 1963. He also recorded several other classics, both traditional songs and covers songs, such as “Danny Boy,” “The Streets of Laredo,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Personal Jesus,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and Mark O’Connor’s sequel to a classic, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia.”
While Johnny Cash’s covers were generally accepted due to the sheer quality of his bass-baritone voice, it was the songs he wrote himself for which he is best known. Not only did the melodies generally complement his voice incredibly well, but the lyrics were often unique. “Folsom Prison Blues” was a particularly dark song, and it had an element of story to it that made it particularly compelling. Cash’s ability as a storyteller was especially notable in “Big River,” a song that focused on vivid and powerful imagery told through non-rhyming lyrics.
Possibly due to Cash’s humble beginnings, he had a tendency to support the underdog. He played free prison shows, and he supported other musicians such as Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan whenever the received heat from the public due to their political beliefs (Kristofferson spent time with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) or their experimentations with music (Dylan’s foray into electrical instrumentation was not widely appreciated). His appreciation for the underdog often coincided with his image as an outlaw, such as when he published a letter in Billboard Magazine in which he called out the cowardice of the music association for encouraging him not to release an album of protest songs and sympathetic ballads about the plight of Native Americans.
Early in his career, the outlaw image had actually stemmed from rowdy behavior akin to that of Hank Williams. Over time, however, he grew to be one of the most well-respected names in the music industry. He had a quiet integrity about him that added a sense of credibility to everything he did. For instance, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails had initially doubted Cash when told that the singer wanted to cover the song “Hurt.” However, upon seeing the music video, Reznor believed Cash’s version to be incredibly compelling. Whether working with his own music or that of other musicians, Cash simply knew how to influence people.
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