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JOHNNY CASH | 1932-2003

The Voice of Everyman in Black

September 13, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Cash, the black-clad baritone whose rural roots and songs of the downtrodden made him a revered, Lincolnesque figure in the history of American popular music, died Friday. He was 71.

The singer of such hits as "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Ring of Fire" died at Baptist Hospital in Nashville after complications related to diabetes caused respiratory failure, according to his manager, Lou Robin. It was four months after the singer's longtime wife and music partner, June Carter Cash, died at age 73 following heart surgery.

With a signature stage greeting of "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," spare music and a voice like the locomotives he often sang about, the singer's persona outsized his own music, and no country star stretched further beyond Nashville than Cash. As television star -- usually playing himself or cowboys -- or as author or activist, the singer put together a career that spanned five decades in the spotlight.

"Johnny Cash was an international ambassador for country music and a musical trailblazer throughout his life, possessing one of the most recognizable names, faces and voices the world has ever known," Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Assn., said Friday. He added: "It is incomprehensible to imagine what country music would have been like without Johnny Cash and his music."

In all, Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs and won 11 Grammys. Cash was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, and was also the first person inducted into both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll halls of fame, in 1980 and 1992, respectively.

In his songs about laborers, gunfights, junkies and hard-luck heroes, as well as in his considerable volumes of spiritual music, Cash used his unvarnished vocals to further the musical mission of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie -- to sing the song of the everyman. He sang about society's underdogs ("Man in Black"), Native Americans ("The Ballad of Ira Hayes") and the dehumanization of inmates ("San Quentin").

"He is a true American hero, beloved the world over as much for his kindness and compassion and championing of the underdog as for the power of his art," singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, who wrote the Cash hit "Sunday Morning Coming Down," said Friday. "He's been my inspiration ... his fierce independence and free spirit, balanced with his love of family, children and his fellow man, will stand as a shining example of the best of what it means to be human. And he was damned funny, even in the darkest times."

The Irish band U2 collaborated with Cash on the 1993 song "Wanderer," and on Friday lead singer Bono said Cash's stature went beyond art: "He was more than wise. In a garden full of weeds -- the oak tree."

Cash had endured a battery of health problems in recent years and, despite two Grammy-winning discs over the last eight years, the singer told The Times last year that he was weak. His eyes were frosted by glaucoma, his gait was unsteady and asthma kept him gasping at times. But he was unbowed and still in love with music.

"Music is part of my life every day," he said on that October day. "It's hanging around every morning; sometimes it is with me at night. June says I was singing a song all last night in my sleep. She had to shake me."

*

On Feb. 26, 1932, J.R. Cash -- not yet Johnny -- was born in Kingsland, Ark., to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash. The New Deal arrived, and with its hopeful underwriting, the couple took 3-year-old J.R. and the rest of the brood to Dyess in the flat, black delta of the state's northeast corner, where young J.R. and his siblings worked the cotton fields.

Cash would say later that the radio music of the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers was his constant companion and his refuge from the sweat and pain of the fieldwork. At night and on Sunday, the family was always singing, most often the Baptist hymns that helped shape the boy's spiritual life.

"The last thing I remember before going to sleep," Cash recalled in the liner notes of a 1994 album, "was my mother beating time on the old Sears-Roebuck guitar, singing 'What Would You Give Me for Your Soul?' "

In the same album notes, for the disc "American Recordings," Cash wrote that when the family gathered on the porch at night he could hear "panthers scream in the woods," but that his mother's voice and guitar mesmerized him like "the harp of King David that we read about in the Bible."

Carl Perkins would later write "Daddy Sang Bass" about the family scenes Cash described from his childhood, but the days were grim. At age 5, his family was evacuated when the Mississippi River overran its banks (an episode he recounted in the 1959 song "Five Foot High and Rising"), and at age 12 his brother Jack, two years his elder, died in a grisly electric-saw accident.

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