Tribute to Johnny Cash: Remembering the Man in Black

Published: 12/11/2023

It's a nice opportunity on this World Diabetes Day, to pay tribute to one of the biggest legends in the world of country music - music, period… the one and only Johnny Cash.

Known as the Man in Black, Cash's life and career were marked by incredible highs, troublesome lows and a mesmerising cannon of recordings that bravely explored the depths of the human spirit. His story is one of redemption and connection across generations - a life worth revisiting and celebrating, warts and all. So, put on your favourite Cash tune and join us in our tribute to singer-songwriting legend, Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash’s legacy lives on in America’s south.
Johnny Cash’s legacy lives on in America’s south.

Early years

Johnny Cash was born on the 26 February 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas during the Great Depression. Born J.R. Cash, his upbringing was nurtured inside a humble family who instilled in him a deep connection to family, earth, God and music. It was his dear mother's hymn singing and the sounds of her gospel and country music that ignited his love for the melodies; the words flowering the foundation of his faith.

After serving in the United States Air Force as a radio intercept operator, Cash worked various jobs in a car factory and as a door-to-door salesman selling homegoods. In 1955, he made his mark in the world at Memphis' Sun Records, where he became admired for his unique voice and captivating songwriting skills, evident with hit songs like I Walk the Line, Big River and Folsom Prison Blues, but more on those later.  

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash during Sun Records' recording session in 1956. Picture: Supplied
Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash during Sun Records' recording session in 1956. Picture: Supplied

In the late 1950s, Cash matured as an artist and used his notoriety to bring awareness to the issues and treatment of Native Americans. He sang songs that many non-native Americans were too hesitant to say. He reflected his upbringing through his words, demonstrating the importance of compassion and healing in humanitarian matters.

Although Cash's career reached new heights, he found himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, battling drinking and amphetamine addiction. Despite his outlaw image being on display, his wild and frantic ways still saw him produce many hit songs.

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In the late 1960s, thanks to June Carter, Johnny Cash sought treatment for his drug addiction. The couple formed a deep connection and were later married in 1968. His career bounced back by the late 60s, reaching wider audiences with his many live shows, including the famous 1968 live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, recorded before 2,000 inmates, marking a pivotal moment in Cash's redemption journey.

In 1969 The Johnny Cash Show was born. Hosted by Cash himself, the 58-episode series taped in Nashville, Tennessee featured the who's who of musicians. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, Roy Orbison - even jazz legend Louis Armstrong graced the stage. 

Later years

In the late 1980s, Johnny Cash's popularity declined, but a revival came in 1994 when he signed with American Recordings. His first album, American Recordings, was a hit, as were his subsequent successful albums: Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000), American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) and American V: A Hundred Highways (2006). Thanks to a new generation of fans adding to his already devoted fan base and a talent like no other, Cash earned himself 13 Grammys and 9 Country Music Association Awards. He was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1996.

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In 1997, Johnny Cash was diagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome during a trip to New York City. Initially thought to be Parkinson's disease, the diagnosis was later changed to autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. Although the illness led to a reduction in his touring activities he never let it define him. Despite health challenges, Cash battled on, performing, creating and pouring his heart and soul into his music - even recording music following the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, in May 2003.

"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. She's never been one for me except courage and inspiration. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart." - Johnny Cash's last ever live performance, prior to singing Ring of Fire at the Carter Ranch.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash Independent News and Media

Johnny Cash was a living testament to the idea that life can still be sweet, even in difficult times. Sadly, the end of the line came for Cash on 12 September 2003, at the age of 71, due to complications from diabetes - exactly four months after the passing of his wife. He was buried next to her at Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Tennessee.

Johnny Cash's most famous songs

To further honour the legend that is Johnny Cash, join us as we explore some of the songs that made him a household name.

Ring Of Fire

Cash's rendition of his sister Anita Carter's song, Ring of Fire, has attained remarkable success and is renowned as a profound love song, celebrated for its passion and intensity. The song's enduring popularity is evident, boasting over 1.2 million digital downloads and inspiring numerous cover versions. It even earned the accolade of being named the greatest country song of all time by Rolling Stone.

"...a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once." Bob Dylan on Johnny Cash

I Walk The Line

We can't talk about Johnny Cash's legacy without acknowledging his song, I Walk the Line. Inspired by playing guitar runs backwards on his tape recorder during his time in Germany as a member of the United States Air Force, the song symbolised Cash's unwavering dedication to his new wife Vivian Liberto.

"I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion."  

Folsom Prison Blues

Written in 1953, Folsom Prison Blues delves into the depths of the human spirit, offering a raw reflection on life behind prison bars. Cash's bluesy guitar and unmistakable voice brought the song to life during a live performance to inmates at Folsom State Prison in 1968, creating a haunting classic that earned the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance at the 1969 Grammy Awards.

Hurt

Among Cash's most notable covers was Nine Inch Nails' song, Hurt. A moving exploration of vulnerability and pain, Cash's cover of the original stands as a testament, much like a close friend who has weathered life's storms. The accompanying music video, directed by Mark Romanek, takes the song to another place - a place so moving and so pure that it changes you in a way. Hurt is a collaborative masterpiece of personal hardship across two completely different singer-songwriters, reinterpreted across a generation. Do yourself a favour and check it out!

'Real deal' Johnny Cash remembered
'Real deal' Johnny Cash remembered

Why the world loved Johnny Cash's songs

Cash's songs weren't just a melody and some words; there was so much heart and soul poured into every single note. His songs resonated with people because they were personal, powerful and relatable - he shared what it's like to be human.

Rest in peace Johnny Cash, thank you for your honesty, your devotion to your craft and for making us feel connected in this wild journey we call life. May your literary songs live forever.

"You tell me that I must perish like the flowers that I cherish.

Nothing remaining of my name, nothing remembered of my fame.

But the trees that I planted still are young.

The songs I sang will still be sung."  Johnny Cash

By Kirsten Jakubenko

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