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Remembering the Man in Black

Observer Scene | Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Johnny Cash, the country music icon known as “The Man in Black,” died Friday of a complication from diabetes at the age of 71. He had been in poor health for several years, and despite maintaining both vigor and musical vitality throughout his old age the past year had dealt him heavy blows with his own continuing health difficulties as well as the death of his beloved wife, June.Cash was a legend long before his recent death, a genre crossing force of songwriting talent and distinctive performance. He defined “cool” for generations and well into his old age, while personifying an outlaw who once, in the words of his famous song “Folsom Prison Blues,” “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” That song, along with other notables such as “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue” (featuring lyrics by Shel Silverstein) and the gorgeous “I Still Miss Someone” form only a portion of the five decade career that made Cash into a cultural force.Raised in Arkansas, Cash wandered from job to job and spent time in the military until he became part of the legendary Sun Studio recording lineup during the mid- and late 1950s. Cash was recruited and mentored by the late Sam Phillips, who was also responsible for the start of Elvis Presley’s career. Cash’s output with Sun was diverse in content, spirit and genre, blending country, rockabilly, gospel and eventually rock and roll into a potent combination that continued to serve Cash long after he had left Sun and began recording with Columbia Records.A wild man who occasionally held concerts in prisons (much to the delight of the prisoners), Cash was in many ways sated and saved by his love affair and eventual marriage to June Carter, a member of the famous country music Carter family. Carter and Cash met and fell in love while on tour together, and they were inseparable after their marriage in 1968 until her death last May.Through the decades, career and label changes, one thing never changed, and that was the unquestionable and enormous influence that Cash was able to maintain on popular music. Unlike Elvis, he survived his indulgences and failed to become either a self parody or a punch line, keeping his dignity at all times. As he aged, Cash did not shun recent pop music trends like many country singers do; instead, he delved into the modern material on his American Recordings albums in the 1990s, and he provided relevant musicians such as U2 continued inspiration.Perhaps the most stunning artistic statement Cash ever made, however, was his last. At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Cash’s video “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, was nominated for five awards and won for best cinematography. The very fact that a 71-year-old country singer found his way into the youth-centered and self-conscious MTV environment alone shows how significant this video was; it is truly breathtaking. The video juxtaposes images of Cash in his youth with his elderly self, in an empty house filled with rotting food on a banquet table, near the shutdown and decrepit House of Cash Museum. It is a frightening display of the physical and emotional decay of an artist who was burdened and overwhelmed by age and time, but it remains a fitting and passionate eulogy for such an artist.Johnny Cash reached and influenced more artists and people than can be named here. He was a charismatic songwriter and performer who, well into his old age, showed how music is not only for the young. The world lost more than just an artist when he died. It lost a legacy – a tower of integrity and artistic achievement in a bankrupt pop music world that Cash spoke out against in his signature song: “well we’re doing mighty fine I do suppose/ in our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes / but just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / up front there ought ‘a be a Man in Black.”

Contact Liam Farrell at lfarrell@nd.edu