I felt that Johnny Cash was one of those characters that kept drifting in and out of my awareness. As a child, I was vaguely aware of him from his later 1950s like I Walk the Line (#17 pop, #6 country) and the even bigger pop hit Guess Things Happen That way (#11 pop, #8 country). 1963’s Ring of Fire was also a crossover hit.
Johnny Cash went through some commercially desolate years due in no small part to his drug use. Then in 1968, now clean, he decided to do a concert in Folsom Prison, California in January, which was released as an album in May of that year. Despite less than enthusiastic support of his record company, Columbia, the album became a big country hit. More surprisingly, it also became a crossover hit, getting up #13 on the pop charts. Jann Wenner, from a relatively new periodical called Rolling Stone, touted the album, which undoubtedly helped fuel its rise. Even more successful was his album At San Quentin, which spawned the #2 pop hit, A Boy Named Sue, penned by Shel Silverstein.
This led to Johnny getting a primetime show on ABC-TV for a couple years, featuring a wide range of artists including Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Minnie Pearl, Pete Seeger, and many more.
Of course, even success has its downside. Contrary to the legend about one of his signature songs, Johnny Cash had taken a Gordon Jenkins tune called Crescent City Blues and changed it to Folsom Prison Blues.
He told Sun Records what he’d done, and eventually Jenkins, who said he had no problem with it. The version in 1955 was a relatively minor hit but the 1968 live version on Columbia was massive, and Jenkins (apparently pushed by his publisher) sued Cash and received a settlement. There is an album called Johnny Cash: Roots and Branches; you can hear 30 seconds of Crescent City Blues here; you can also read an analysis of Folsom Prison’s most iconic line, “I shot a man in Reno” here. Somehow, this ripoff of an existing song didn’t bother me as much as others, especially given the fact that John had ‘fessed up.
Johnny Cash, Live at San Quentin – Folsom Prison Blues
John continued with an up-and-down profile. He’d show up in supergroups such as the Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson) in 1985 or the Class of ’55 (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison) in 1986; I have the latter on something called vinyl, BTW. But it wasn’t until a friend of mine sent me American Recording, the 1994 first album he performed produced by rock/hip hop producer Rick Rubin. The sparse sound was a revelation and I rediscovered Johnny Cash in that series of American albums: Unchained, Solitary Man, and The Man Comes Around, plus the posthumous A Hundred Highways and a boxed set. The defining song in his later years, of course was the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.
Justin Timberlake, who beat out Johnny for a video award, said publicly that John should have one for Hurt and later conceived the posthumous video for God’s Gonna Cut You Down.
Johnny Cash died September 12, 2003, just months after his beloved wife, June Carter Cash passed away.