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Johnny Cash: At 70, the legendary singer is still an asset to music

Tuesday, February 26, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The word " influential" is relative. Lots of recording artists influence lots of others, but who influenced the influential?

(Illustrated by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

Today marks the 70th birthday of Johnny Cash, the self-described "Man in Black" -- a rocker, a rebel, an addict, an icon, a Christian, a father, a folk singer -- a man whom Kris Kristofferson famously called "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."

In fact, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate between Cash and the legend surrounding him. One thing is certain: Over the past half-century, whenever the influence of pop culture was altering our society, Cash was there in the foreground or behind the scenes, refusing to follow trends and reluctantly setting them.

Are you a rocker? Cash was at Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins when it started, and only an accident of marketing and his stubborn independence kept him from continuing on that track. He helped to introduce America to a snarling young folkie who was equally despised by the rock and country scenes years before Bob Dylan began influencing The Beatles. Late in his career, Cash was back on the rock charts as U2's guest vocalist and inspiring musical exploration in several unlikely collaborations with hit hip-hop/rock producer Rick Rubin.

Are you country? After starting his career on the progressive wing of the country-western scene, he pulled the industry in his direction with an insistent baritone and common-sense songs. After drifting out of the country mainstream, he found himself at the center of it again when the industry followed him.


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Are you a Christian? As the legend goes, Cash left rock upstart Sun when owner Sam Phillips refused to allow him to record a gospel album. He jumped to Columbia Records, where he released the first of many gospel and religious-themed discs.

Are you an American? When the Vietnam War divided the country, Cash walked the line between opposition to the Vietnam War and allegiance to the soldiers who fought in it. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, several of his patriotic ballads were reissued and were suddenly in vogue again.

Cash was still flipping his finger at conformity and speeding across the country on an amphetamine rush when he hit rock bottom in a Texas jail cell, lost his wife and nearly lost his career and his life. Brought to his senses by gospel singer June Carter, he rehabilitated himself and built a new family and a new career, influencing other addled stars to beat their vices and make the best of bad situations.

While refusing to follow trends, Cash also could be as commercial as anyone. He used his TV variety show to spotlight a new generation of songwriters. At the height of his popularity, he went his own way to explore the broad spectrum of popular music, reinventing himself again as sort of a traveling music archivist who didn't see distinctions between the songs of Hank Williams, Soundgarden and Beck, as long as the song was as real as the sentiment behind it.

Afflicted since the late 1990s with a neurological disorder, Cash has virtually stopped performing live. But his influence continues to be pervasive.

As pop music progresses into the 21st century, it's carrying with it the distant inspiration of a well-intentioned maverick who values authenticity above all else. We're still under the influence of Cash.

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