Johnny Cash Dead At 71

Johnny Cash, the 71-year-old American icon, died September 12 of respiratory failure caused by complications from diabetes. The singer/songwriter had been released from the hospital the preceding day after a two-week struggle with an unspecified stomach ailment.

Cash had been in ill health for several years, suffering also from autonomic neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system, as well as pneumonia. Yet, his final days were spent in a burst of creative energy that would have put a younger, healthier man to shame. His most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around (Universal/American Recordings 077083), introduced him to a new generation of music lovers and garnered near universal critical acclaim, as well as generating an award-winning music video for Cash's reading of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." On September 23, a Cash-compiled and annotated entry in the Starbucks Coffee Company/Hear Music series of "Artist Choice" CDs will be released.

During his final days, Cash had been hard at work on a five-disc box set with producer Rick Rubin. Tentatively titled Unearthed, it consists of four discs of previously unreleased material, along with an overview of Cash's four recordings for Rubin's American Recordings label.

Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash was simply named J. R. (Sam Phillips gave him the name John for the label of his first record). When he was three, his family moved to Dyess Colony, a WPA federal land-reclamation project in northeast Arkansas, along the Mississippi. Cash later wrote about having to flee one of the big river's floods in "Five Feet High and Rising." After high school, Cash worked briefly in an auto factory in Pontiac, MI before enlisting in the Air Force. While stationed in Germany, he put together his first band and acquired a open-reel tape recorder, which he used to work out song ideas, since he didn't read or write music.

Upon his return to the States, Cash moved to Memphis, where he recorded his first single, "Hey Porter," for Sun Records in 1955. The music had a stripped-down sound that was unlike anything else at that time—it was neither rock nor country, but it appealed to fans of both. Cash's next hit was "Cry, Cry, Cry," but it was the two that followed—"Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line"—that sketched out the themes that Cash would become so closely identified with over the next 45 years: remorse and the struggle against temptation. By 1960, Cash had written more than 50 songs and sold more than six million discs, but Sun balked at releasing a record of gospel songs, so the musician left for Columbia Records, where he would stay for 28 years.

Many rock music fans were startled to hear Cash's signature parched baritone on Bob Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline, but the country music star had befriended Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and had recorded three Dylan songs on his 1965 Orange Blossom Special—and, when Cash was given a weekly television show on ABC in 1969, Dylan made a guest appearance on the first show. Over its three-year run, The Johnny Cash Show was characterized by its host's wide-ranging musical taste, featuring many artists who would have otherwise received no attention from mainstream TV networks: Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Jr., Judy Collins, Charley Pride, and Merle Haggard.

Cash also took a stand opposing the war in Vietnam, although one distinguished by his own sense of patriotism. In "Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues," Cash recounted his experiences singing to the servicemen at Long Bien Air Force Base near Saigon. He said a reporter asked him if entertaining the troops indicated that he was a hawk, and he responded that, no, he wasn't a hawk. "If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for 'em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws."

That was typical of Cash's entire career. Easy labels simply didn't apply to a talent like his. To say that Cash's early recordings sound as contemporary as his final ones is to miss the point—Johnny Cash's music transcended time, blending old and new sounds into something unique. Cash was prolific: he recorded over 1500 songs, which have appeared on more than 500 albums. He won too many awards to list and influenced too many musicians to even attempt to name.

When all is said and done, words cannot do justice to his lifetime's work. Fortunately, his music says it all—thank God he gave us so much of it.