Menu
Home

Johnny Cash's Legacy Crosses Generations

Johnny Cash's (search) rugged voice championed the downtrodden and reached across generations. His legacy will survive as long as there's music, friends and fellow musicians say.

Cash, "The Man in Black," died Friday from diabetes (search) that resulted in respiratory failure.

Photo Essay: An American Icon

"I don't see any stars on the horizon that are like Johnny Cash," friend and country music singer Glen Campbell (search) said. "He was so unique. I miss him."

In his songs, Cash crafted a persona as a dignified, resilient voice for the common man — but there was always a dark edge.

One of the most haunting couplets in popular music comes from "Folsom Prison Blues," which went to No. 4 on the country charts in 1956: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."

Forty-seven years later, Cash's arresting video for "Hurt" was nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards, winning one.

"He is the patron saint of every kid with a guitar," said singer-songwriter Tom Waits (search). "Songwriters learn how to write songs from listening to each other. He's like a wise old tree full of songs. I spent many days under his branches."

His deeply lined face fit well with his voice, which was limited in range but used to great effect to sing about prisoners, heartaches and tales of everyday life.

As news of his death spread, musicians praised Cash for his independent, rebellious streak that made him a powerful influence in country, rock, folk and gospel music.

"When I went to Nashville 40 years ago to record my first country song Johnny was a welcoming figure and became a lifelong friend," Ray Charles (search) said. "He made a giant contribution to music, not just country style."

Cash had been released from the hospital Tuesday after a two-week stay for treatment of an unspecified stomach ailment. The illness caused him to miss last month's MTV awards, where his "Hurt" — a cover of Trent Reznor's song with Nine Inch Nails (search) — won for cinematography.

"To hear that Johnny was interested in doing my song was a defining moment in my life's work," Reznor said. "To hear the result really reminded me how beautiful, touching and powerful music can be."

Cash had battled a disease of the nervous system, autonomic neuropathy, and pneumonia in recent years. His second wife, singer June Carter Cash (search), who co-wrote Cash's hit "Ring of Fire," died in May.

"Not only has the world lost a legend, but we in country music have lost one of our family," said Loretta Lynn. "I know both Johnny and June will always be looking down and watching over us all. The stars in heaven are just a little brighter."

Cash wrote much of his own material and was among the first to record the songs of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.

"One Piece at a Time" was about an assembly line worker who built a car out of parts stolen from his factory. "A Boy Named Sue," a Shel Silverstein song he took to No. 1 in 1969, was a comical story of a father who gives his son a girl's name to make him tough.

Kristofferson, who wrote Cash's 1970 hit "Sunday Morning Coming Down," called the singer a "true American hero."

"He was always larger than life for me, and I've known him for over 30 years," Kristofferson said.

Cash said in his self-titled 1997 autobiography that he tried to speak for "voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments."

Each new generation found something of value in Cash's records, many of which used his trademark rockabilly rhythm.

"His impact on country music and all music is up there in a very rarified atmosphere," said Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "He was so accessible and his voice was so instantly recognizable. And he used really simple arrangements. When you listened to him you almost thought you could go out and make music yourself."

Cash was a peer of Elvis Presley when he began recording in Memphis in the 1950s, and he scored hits like "Cry! Cry! Cry!" during that era. He had a longtime friendship and recorded with Dylan, who has cited Cash as a major influence.

"His early records were more rockabilly than country. He's widely considered a pioneer of the rockabilly sound and early rock 'n' roll," said Jim Henke, chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Cash, who won 11 Grammy Awards, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

June Carter Cash, who partnered with him in hits such as "Jackson," and daughter Rosanne Cash also were successful singers.

"His light bulbs were bright, you know? He united the downtrodden working man with the royalty of Europe. He could span all of what humanity is," said singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who was once married to Roseanne Cash.

The late 1960s and '70s were Cash's peak commercial years, and he was host of his own ABC variety show from 1969-71.

In the 1990s, Cash found a new artistic life recording with rock-rap producer Rick Rubin on the label American Recordings. He was back on the charts in 2002 with the album "American IV: The Man Comes Around."

In his 1971 hit "Man in Black," Cash said his black clothing symbolized the world's downtrodden people.

"Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots," he said in 1986. "I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I've worn black clothes ever since."