Monday, May 2, 2011

Johnny Cash

J. R. Cash

Johnny Cash went from struggling Sun Records artist to household name. It didn't happen overnight and it didn't happen without consequence. He was the Un-Elvis. His career started much slower and took him through many ups and downs. 

Demons or rebellious ? Both......
He had trouble with the law and what his children referred to as his "demons".  But somehow, some way, that career, just like that old black train, just kept on rolling down the line.

Johnny Cash
Unlike Elvis, when he left Sun for bigger stages, he headed two hundred miles east to Nashville. He built a solid career slowly but surely. He built it working the juke joints, beer joints, honky tonks, county fairs, movie theaters, churches and any place else he could get a gig. He built his fan base one person at a time.  All the work and tough times finally paid off. JC would have his own television variety show, play lead parts in movies and have a career full of hit records.

Johnny Cash, man of the hour
Johnny Cash would be as big a name as any country singer would ever become. His story teller style just seemed to fit America's idea of an entertainer. The fact that Cash reached out to opposite genre's probably grew his career as much as his own muse.

Johnny Cash the early years
The Man in Black is the fourth in our Rockabilly Series. In truth I can't tell you where he stands as a pioneer. Chronologically, I know he was an early Sun artist but not sure who signed first or left last. JC, Carl, Jerry Lee, Roy and Elvis were all on contract at the same time. Sonny Burgess was in there somewhere and I'm sure there were many others.

Soooiiee !

I rank him ahead of Jerry Lee just because I think of him as more of a hillbilly rocker and Jerry Lee was influenced more by the blues. That's just my opinion.

But Johnny Cash was also what was known as a folk singer. I don't know if he would agree to that but I will always think of his story telling ability and his ability to relate stories of early Americana. 

As teenagers we would sit in an old 53 chevy and sing along with him. His words meant something. I think he went from rockabilly to folk artist to story teller to country mega star. 

When Johnny sang one of those train songs or asked how high's the water mama, we could see water of the 1927 flood and that old Arkansas delta share croppers shack. 

We could see that lonesome engine rolling in the distance. We could see what he sang about more than any other artist. 
Trouble just seemed to be a part of life.

Don't you remember imagining the lighted windows and the people eating in that far away luxury train ? See the black smoke billowing against the moon ? It's been fifty years or there about and I can see it like today's newspaper. 

Johnny Cash gave us history lessons we would find no where else. He taught us in our mind's eye. Now that's a pretty neat trick. It's probably the reason we still see bumper stickers proclaiming the vehicle's owner misses Johnny Cash. 

The original man in black, Johnny Cash

That's pretty damn good brand loyalty for a country boy from Dyess Colony, Arkansas.

Times could be tough for Johnny Cash
Over the years Johnny Cash was many things. First the rockabilly, then the troubled country star, then "the man in black" television star, a country music outlaw legends and who knows what I've left out. From there he just kept doing new things with new people. Those open house evenings at his home gave rise to many big name rock and rollers and country stars. He nurtured talent where he saw it and always gave as much as he took. 

Johnny Cash was very much like that old lonesome train. He had a head of steam that would sometimes blow. He had boxcars full of talent, he had cattle cars full of troubles, he had pig iron cars full of hits, he had the confidence and stage demeanor that would bring up the caboose. Johnny could sing the early rockabilly or he could belt the white boy blues. He could share a stage with anyone and the spotlight would never stray. 

Johnny and June Carter Cash
He had a hell of a career. But I think I would be remiss if I didn't insist his wife June Carter Cash had to assert that engineers role or Johnny's career would have been over not long after his Sun Record days. To say the least he was a train wreck "fixin" to happen. She couldn't fix him completely but she kept him on the tracks most of the time. And with all that talent loaded on board nothing could keep that train from rollin' on down the line.
Johnny and June

Movie actor Johnny Cash
Each of the early rockabilly stars went on separate paths as their individuality would direct. As a result American music grew in each of those directions. Elvis, Carl and Jerry Lee could make you get up and shake it. It was Johnny's ability to make you see his story that gave his career longevity.

Johnny Cash started slower but had a much more solid career. He will always be the man who invited us to sing along. Thanks for the memories J.R.

                   This article brought to you by 
           a fellow Arkansan and life long fan
                          of Johnny Cash.

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