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Hero In Black - Johnny Cash  

When Johnny Cash’s Rumbling version of the Neil Diamond classic “Solitary Man” won this year’s Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, the Man In Black was not on hand. That night, Johnny had other things on his mind – he had just been released from Nashville’s Baptist Hospital hours earlier. He had spent more than a week there, suffering from pneumonia. It was his fourth bout in three years. He nearly died of pneumonia after falling into a coma for 12 days in the fall of 1998, then was hospitalized again the following year. The 69-year-old singer is susceptible to the disease because of autonomic neuropathy, a condition misdiagnosed as Shy-Drager syndrome a few years earlier. Its kind of disorder of the nervous system, Johnny explains. “But I’m not nervous”. I don’t feel that I have any disease. Undoubtedly, though, his battles with pneumonia slowed his recording schedule the constant coughing makes him hoarse and tightens his voice box. “It just really took a toll on me” he says

To cop with the illness, Johnny has made changes in his lifestyle. He spends more time relaxing at home – he has one outside Nashville and another in Jamaica and recording music at his own pace. But performing live, unfortunately, has become a thing of the past. “I haven’t take any offers for television, live performances, commercials or any such thing for years,” Cash says. “So long as we can keep the business going without al that, “I’m very happy”. “I’ve had my 40-plus years on the stage.” Nonetheless, he won’t rule out onscreen appearances. “I won’t say I will not do any more Television,” he says. “Depends, a part in a movie? Depends. It has to be exactly right in my mind before I’ll do it. No matter what, music will always be his first priority. Johnny’s most recent album, American #3 Solitary Man, was met with great commercial and critical success and was recently nominated for the Academy Of Country Music’s Best Album honor. “I guess that except for George Jones, I’m the oldest country artist on the charts,” says Johnny. “That’s does make me feel very good.” Solitary Man finds Johnny touching on some subject’s dear to him, including the death penalty on the song Mercy Seat. The track was recorded as Johnny’s home state of Tennessee staged its first execution in 40 years. “The song does more than call attention it the issue of the death penalty,” he says. “I won’t make stand either way on it. I just wanted to call attention to some of the heartfelt gut emotions that came along with it.”

Johnny says he hopes “Mercy Seat” simply provokes listeners to think about the issue and come to their own conclusions. “I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say that my can change the country,” he says. “Not at all. It’s about touching emotions and reaching people’s hearts and guts. While Johnny has been supportive of liberal causes in the past and has recorded political charged songs such as “Man In Black,” he refuses to explicitly support political candidates or parties. “I did that once a few years ago, but I won’t do it anymore.” He says. I’ve been around almost 50 years, and most of these politicians are there for four. “So I don’t feel like it’s for me to say who I think the people should vote for.” Instead, Johnny wants to focus his energy on his music. His record label for the last eight years, American Recordings, remains very enthusiastic about his music. “I have a standing order for one album after another, unending,” he says. “Until I’m not able to record anymore.” The singer becomes animated when talking about his next album, which he promises will be musically heavier than his sparse recent albums. “I really don’t care to be known as a folk singer,” he notes. “I might use more instruments. There might be one or two with just my guitar, but there are some things we’re finding that call for a little bigger sound.

Cash Back Guaranteed - Article May 5 - 11  

The Legendary Johnny Cash Talks About music, Old Times And Facing Down The Future d

Johnny Cash may be the only man in the world who looks right at home wearing a knee-length cowboy-style duster in the bar of a posh midtown Manhattan hotel. It’s an early October morning, and the 69-year old Cash has been enjoying the city for several days, taking in a Broadway play, hosting dinners with is wife, June Carter Cash, and visiting his record company. But for Cash, whose storied career spanning nearly 50 years has eared him berth in the country Rock And Roll, and Songwriters Halls Of Fame, even the ritziest spots of Manhattan are accompanied by a Bob Dylan twang. I was telling June last night I can’t go to New York and drive down the streets without thinking of Bob “Cash says” Because the first time we spent any time with him was in New York when he had his first two albums. And I’m always singing his songs. With that, Cash launches into “Bob Dylan’s Blues” “Well, The Lone Ranger and Tonto/They are riding down the line/fixin everybody’s trouble ‘cept mine/somebody must’ve told ‘em/that/That I was doin fine.

Cash did, in fact, seem to be doing fine. But the country legend would soon be battling health problems that have bedeviled him in recent years. In February he was hospitalized with in Nashville for pneumonia, his fourth bout with the illness since 1998. And for the fourth time, he won the battle. Cash’s health has been the subject of fan conjecture for years. In 1997, he was diagnosed with a nervous-system disorder called Shy-Drager syndrome, a Parkinson’s-like condition marked by wide swings in blood pressure. He was later told the diagnosis was incorrect. But more about that later. Right now, Cash wants to talk music. Specifically, his latest album, American 111 Solitary Man. Produced by Rick Rubin, best known for his work with such rock acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys, Solitary Man includes versions of a songs by U2, Tom Petty and the Australian rocker Nick Cave, along with five Cash original, a smattering of standards and even a traditional folk ballad. Solitary Man proves once again that Cash is a vital as anyone on today’s charts. It will compete for album of the year at this week’s 36th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, putting Cash alongside some of Nashville’s youngest guns; Toby Keith, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Gilman, and Brad Paisley.

“New branches on an old tree” is how Cash describes the youngest writers he admires and records. Cash two other albums for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, American Recordings (1994) and Unchained (1996), featuring songs by Nick Lowe, Beck and soundgarden. “I’d hear songs 10 years ago and say, I’d never record anything like that. Well, it might be just what I what I want today. I heard the U2 song, and I said, Man, what a great song. I wish I could record something like that. And here finally come around to recording it. I don’t think about age of the writer when I listen to a song. That would really put some limitations on the possibilities of songs. Cash know, I was one of the original rockabillies, but I felt for a long time like I was around the fringes of rock and roll, he says. Elvis asked me to write a song for him in, like 56 and I wrote Get Rhythm. I put it down, and Sam Phillips (the owner of Sun Records) where Presley and Cash began their careers wouldn’t let him have it because he’d sold Elvis to RCA label. So He released it by me. But I always though that was a kind of thing I could have gotten into much more in a big way back then if I’d had the opportunity. But the blinders were being put on against my well. Not that I don’t love country music; I do. But I was categorized as countrified and I had been to town. Now it’s come a full circle.

Cash has long taken a broad view of America’s musical horizons. As Willie Nelson put it Kris Kristofferson always refers to John as the father of our country. And that’s good enough for me. Aside from doing as much as anyone to spur country’s “outlaw” movement, Cash was instrumental in reminding Nashville of the affinity between country and folk music, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. And when hosted his popular, self-titled television variety show from 1969 to 1971, he made sure his quest were drawn from virtually every facet of American popular music. Along with Dylan, the show featured performances by Ray Charles, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Merle Haggard, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young. Still, Cash initially expressed surprise when he inducted to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992. I’m not exactly the staple fare for MTV, he says. Perhaps not, but today’s chroniclers of street life certainly owe a big debt to the Man In Black. As the author of folsom Prison Blue, with its infamous line “I shot A Man In Reno/Just To Watch Him Die” Cash has strong opinion, regarding the debates about violence in music.

Let’s go back another generation or two before “Folsom Prison Blues” he says Jimmie Rodgers sang “I’m Gonna Buy Me A Shotgun As Long As I’m Tall/I’m Gonna Shoot Poor Thelma/ Just To See Her Jump And Fall”. That’s one of the classic lines in country music Songs of tragedy. You take the tragedy out of country music – real country and folk music and you’ve got nothing. Tragedy is a part of the lives of the pioneering and railroad people of this country. Bridge builders, river workers, the brakemen on the railroad who sang about a train about a train running over a man and cutting him to pieces or a train wreck that killed everyone onboard. I have no apology and no reservations to anybody about lyrics I wrote and recorded. If lyrics are not reflection of society, then what are they worth? These days, most of the recording for Cash’s albums is done in a studio behind his home in Tennessee; He also has a winter home in Jamaica. He no longer tours – We gave everything we had for 43 years, and enough is enough already, he says – and prefers a more leisurely approach to making albums: I don’t have to pack those damn black suitcases and black clothes.

Conserving energy has been essential for Cash in recent years. Since being diagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome he has spent most of the last few years receiving medical treatment. Now however, he says he is feeling better and insists he was misdiagnosed. I have no diagnosis now, he says. My doctor in Nashville told me last year that she and the specialist for this disease decided I don’t have it, or I’d be dead by now. She said, you’re getting better all the time, and I said, that’s right I told you I don’t have it, I deny it. That’s God in me, and that’s where he rises up and where he’s at our beck and call. He healed me of that thing you people tagged me with. And she said, Well, we’ll see. But I know where my bread is buttered, and that’s with my faith in God. Someone said I looked death in the eye, blinked a couple of times and just back up. 

Acoustic Guitar Article 

In the 50 years since Johnny Cash bought his first guitar, he’s sung gospel songs and murder ballads, teen pop and country weepers, protest songs and vaudeville novelties. It’s an output that’s unmatched in American music, filled with a deep sense of respect for the past and an unsparing honesty about the present.

After starting life in 1932 as the son of an Arkansas sharecropper, he reached mythic proportions as the Man in Black—what Cash calls "my symbol of rebellion"—speaking out for the poor, the hopeless, and the beaten down. Twenty-five years ago, Kris Kristofferson called him "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." But as the years go by, those fictions keep dropping away, and the truth is all that remains: Johnny Cash is the quintessential outsider, a stunning songwriter and a frighteningly imperfect man, embracing the best and worst in this country and in himself.

Now 69 years old, Cash is in the middle of his third comeback, resting after last year’s Grammy-winning Solitary Man and getting ready for the release of My Mother’s Hymn Book later this year. Refusing to give in to the illness that’s struck his nervous system, he remains expansive, hopeful, and indomitable, an artist still at the height of his powers.

"I couldn’t have asked for more," he says, talking from his home in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where he and his wife June Carter Cash spend their winters. "I looked at the country charts this morning, and except for George Jones, I’m the oldest person there. And that makes me feel pretty good. You know, maybe the numbers ain’t much, compared to a big rock record, like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. But I don’t care, I don’t do that kind of stuff. What I do is what I feel like doing, and what I’m proud of doing, from the time I do it until it’s past and gone."

Cash’s earliest memories revolve around music. He remembers listening to his mother Carrie singing spirituals in the cotton fields or sitting by the woodstove while she strummed her Sears and Roebuck guitar, joining in on the chorus of the Monroe Brothers’ "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?"

"That’s the first song I ever remember singing, when I was about four," he says, his voice slowing to a crawl. "I was just in awe of that guitar, that she could make music with her two hands on this piece of wood. I told her that someday I wanted to have my own guitar, and she said, ‘Maybe we can afford to keep this one.’ I didn’t realize it then, but she was making payments on it, and at some point, when I was five or six, all of a sudden, the guitar just wasn’t there. I remember asking her, ‘Why don’t we sing and play the guitar anymore?’ She just looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Son, we don’t have a guitar.’"

When they lost that guitar, Carrie Cash took in laundry to pay for John’s three singing lessons, and when he was 12 years old, before he could play a single note on guitar, he started writing songs. By then, a mail-order radio had started to bring home the rest of the world—gospel from the Chuck Wagon Gang, cowboy songs from Gene Autry, country music from the Carter Family, Vernon Dalhart, and Jimmie Rodgers—and those were the songs he wanted to write. He can’t remember much about those first attempts at songwriting; he suspects his ex-wife may still have some of the fragments. But he remembers that they were sad, slow ballads, the kind of country weepers he calls "cry in your milk songs."

He sang them on his walk to school and on the walk to see his friend Pete Barnhill, who taught Cash his first guitar chords on a Gibson flattop. "I thought he was the best guitar player in the world," says Cash, a half century later. The first chance he got, Cash imitated Barnhill’s guitar style, playing both rhythm and lead with his thumb and occasionally brushing the strings with his fingers to accent the beat. As far as he’s concerned, the technique was good enough for his mother and good enough for Barnhill, so it’s been good enough for Cash ever since. "I’m not a musician," he says. "I just accompany myself on my guitar, just me and my thumb, no pick. I can only strum with my thumb; I can’t pick it at all." 

At 18, Cash graduated from high school and went to work on an automobile assembly line in Pontiac, Michigan. That job didn’t last long, and after a couple more—pouring concrete and cleaning out vats in a margarine factory—he joined the Air Force. Stationed in Landsberg, Germany, Cash spent the next three years intercepting Russian Morse code transmissions; his voice still swells with pride when he talks about transcribing 35 words a minute. The Air Force gave Cash his first steady paycheck, $85 a month, which he used to buy his first guitar.

"I walked to town from the Air Force base, went to a music store, and bought that guitar for five dollars," he says. "It was snowing when I started walking back, and by the time I got to the base four miles away, the snow was over knee-deep. I was freezing, I just had on these little shoes, but somehow I managed to keep that guitar protected from the snow. I got it back without being damaged, and immediately I started learning to play, as soon as I could thaw out." 

A friend from Louisiana taught him a handful of chords, and after two or three days of practice, Cash was able to sing and strum just about any three-chord country song that came to mind. With two friends on the base, a guitarist and a mandolinist, he formed the Barbarians, entertaining rowdy local bars with songs like Hank Thompson’s "The Wild Side of Life" and Joe Maphis’ "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music.)" Cash tore off the edge of a drink coaster and used it as a pick. He damped the vibrations by sticking a piece of paper underneath his strings, creating a short, percussive sound that felt like the Morse code he listened to night after night.

It was in Germany, away from his family for the first time in his life, that Cash saw the movie Inside Folsom Prison and immediately identified with the convicts. "It was like imprisonment," he says, talking about his time in the Air Force. "I was locked there on that base, three years without a furlough to come home. The only way they would have let me come home was if there had been a death in my immediate family. I was not only isolated from my loved ones, but there was nowhere to go, no one to reach out to."

Cash quit the Air Force after his second tour of duty and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he married Vivian Liberto. Through his brother Roy, he met guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Together, they found an occasional gig, played for free on Memphis radio, and, after a year of knocking on doors, finally secured an audition with Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

It was Phillips who decided to call him Johnny, a name that Cash has never liked. And it was Phillips who decided to record Cash as a rockabilly artist, instead of as the gospel singer he’d claimed to be over the telephone. They ran through a series of songs by Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family before Phillips heard something he liked: Cash’s "Hey Porter," which became the A side of his first single. Three weeks and 35 takes later, they had the B side, too: Cash’s "Cry Cry Cry," the response to Phillips’ instructions to write "a real weeper."

The single became a regional hit, earning Cash $6.42 in his first royalty check and sending him on the road to open for Sonny James and Elvis Presley. Over the next two years, Cash recorded a string of successes for Sun, peaking with "I Walk the Line," which topped the country charts for six weeks in 1956. There was a wide range of material, from "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" to "Folsom Prison Blues" to "Get Rhythm," but the formula was consistent: Perkins’ crudely effective Fender Telecaster; Grant’s spare, solid bass; and Cash’s paper-dampened Martin D-28 keeping rhythm, rattling with that snare drum boom-chicka beat.

"That rhythm of the Morse code had a lot to do with the rhythm I felt in my music," says Cash. "Every once in a while, I hear Morse code on my shortwave radio, and I scribble it down. I can still copy it pretty fast, and I wonder why that’s stuck with me for so long. I realized that it’s got a rhythm that just begs to have a drum added to it, or a guitar. After I got out of the Air Force, I could still hear it, and when I started writing songs again, I had that rhythm in my head. And those three years in Germany, where I thought I’d thrown away my personal life—well, I like to feel that’s where I got it from." 

After those first hits, Cash left Sun for Columbia Records, where he stayed for most of the next 30 years. It’s a period documented on last year’s three-CD Love God Murder, a collection Cash says "took no time at all" to compile. There was a lot of great music during these years—gospel songs like "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)," historic ballads like "The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer," and pop hits like "Ring of Fire"—but when Cash looks back, these are some of the recording sessions he wishes he had "been a little more serious about, done a little better."

At Columbia, Cash had the freedom to record concept albums about railroads, Native Americans, blue-collar workers, and the life of Jesus Christ. These were the years of his biggest hits and his busiest tour schedules. But as his popularity grew, so did his drug use, until he was popping amphetamines and barbiturates by the handful. His drug intake was legendary, and so was his appetite for destruction; wherever he performed, he left a trail of drunk tanks, car wrecks, and trashed hotel rooms. After reaching the Grand Ole Opry, he smashed the footlights with his microphone stand and was never asked back. In 1963 he hit rock bottom and left his wife and three daughters to move to New York City.

Making friends in Greenwich Village’s folk scene, Cash started taking new kinds of drugs and getting into even more trouble. At his worst, he went for days without sleeping, carrying a gun with him everywhere he went. At his best, he sobered up long enough to record again, cultivating an outlaw persona out of this downward spiral and releasing albums like Mean as Hell. When people talk about the mythic Johnny Cash, this is the man they remember: dark, violent, and unapologetic.

"Whether we like it not, they’ve always been the most fascinating characters in our history," says Cash of the antiheroes he sings about on Murder, which has sold more copies than Love and God combined. It’s a question he’s answered many times before, but even now, with his voice growing weaker, he’s proud of all the nasty thugs he’s written about. "Those are the songs I love to do," he says, "ever since I started in this business."

On September 12, Willie Nelson will release his first .


Revised: September 03, 2007

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