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Weekly Alibi The Man in Black

Johnny Cash

By Michael Henningsen

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  The interview fell through. Johnny Cash, some 25 years older than my own father, was too busy. And it makes me happy and proud, almost, that I didn't get to talk to the famed Man in Black prior to his show in Albuquerque--one that many people never dreamed would happen--simply because I'm glad to know that he still calls the shots after all these years. Nobody fucks with Johnny Cash.

To tell the honest truth, the legend of Johnny Cash is more of a Greek myth to me than it is a true account of a man whose influence is felt throughout both rock and country circles. He's a Herculean hero--a mythic character whose reputation precedes him to the point that just about everyone, from astute punk rockers to purveyors of country music, feels his presence and worships him as an innovator, a mentor and a major contributor to the misplaced, difficult to discern musical culture that at once defines and fails to define America. Johnny Cash is a common thread that binds us all to the idea that something deeper is at work, and he does it all with simple melody and an unmistakable voice.

Of all the Highwaymen, Johnny Cash is the most recognizable and the most enigmatic. Waylon Jennings became a folk hero, Willie Nelson smoked dope on the White House roof and Kris Kristofferson faded alternately into Hollywood and oblivion, but Johnny Cash poised himself eternal by remaining, largely, a public mystery. He was never far, but always distant enough to inspire a certain sense of wonder and speculation. And in the meantime, bands like Social Distortion recorded "Ring of Fire," a June Carter/Merle Kilgore-penned song made famous by Cash, and taught a new audience the faith.

Born in Kingsland, Ark., in 1932, Cash began writing his own songs at the age of 12 but didn't voraciously pursue his musical tendencies until 1950, while enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War. It was during that time that he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues," one of his most famous songs. He left the Air Force in 1954 and moved to Memphis, securing a recording contract with the legendary Sun Records a year later. Accompanied by guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, Cash recorded "Cry, Cry Cry" and "Hey Porter" for Sun, which became his debut single. In November of 1957, Cash became the first artist to record and release a full-length album on the Sun label with Johnny Cash with His Hot Blue Guitar.

In 1960, largely because of Sun owner Sam Phillips' refusal to increase his royalties, Cash signed with Columbia Records and, over the next four years, released some of his biggest hits including "All Over Again," "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Luther Played the Boogie" and "Understand Your Man." In 1965, Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas, for possession of amphetamines, and his career took a turn for the worst. The Grand Ole Opry refused to have him play and, in 1965, his wife of 11 years, Vivian Leberto, filed for divorce. Cash moved to Nashville soon after and bounced back in 1968 with the release of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

By the mid-1970s, Cash's popularity had begun to fade. In 1980, he became the youngest inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and, five years later, the legendary Highwaymen formed and released their first record, revitalizing Cash's reputation and career. The all-star quartet released their second and most successful album in 1992, and Cash signed a deal with American Recordings a year later.

His first album for the label, entitled American Recordings, introduced Cash to a new, younger generation, catapulting him into the rock realm. Unchained, his second American release, features Cash originals along with songs by Soundgarden and other contemporary rock bands.

Undoubtedly, a major figure in the history of American music, Johnny Cash represents the passion and determination of three generations of people trying desperately to find their way. His contributions are countless, his music timeless, and, always, the mystique of the Man in Black shall inspire.

--Michael Henningsen

Johnny Cash performs Thursday, Oct. 2 at Popejoy Hall. Tickets $45-23, available from Protix, 851-5050 or (800) 905-3315.

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