This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #415: “Man in Black” by Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was “The Man in Black”.
There is so much to say about this legendary singer that I almost feel that I don’t need to say much of anything at all. But, what fun would that be? So here goes my shortened take on the life of one of the greatest musicians in all of music history, Mr. Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash began his musical career at the same time as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee under the controlling hand of Colonel Tom Parker. Initially, Cash was a gospel singer and auditioned for Parker by singing several gospel songs. Parker turned him away, famously telling him to come back once he had sinned and had more interesting material for his songs. Not to gloss over things but, one of the most fundamental aspects of Cash’s life going forward, was his battle with alcoholism, drug abuse and his run-ins with the Law. While never actually ending up in prison, Johnny Cash did serve time in several local jails…one night here, one night there….for intoxicated behaviour the resulted in property damage and/or injury to others.
A second fundamental aspect of his life and, one that is reflected in many of his song choices, was a railing against authority and a championing of people he considered to be underdogs in society. For example, he often wrote songs about Native Americans and the raw deal the US Government had dealt them. He was, also, famous for performing in prisons. Some of his most famous and successful albums of all time, “Live at San Quentin Prison” and “Live at Folsom Prison” were recorded with an audience of hardened felons.
What helped Cash navigate his way through life were several important people who ended up taking on mentoring or guardianship roles. The most important of which was his second wife, June Carter. A bit of Canadian trivia regarding Johnny and June is that Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter on stage at the old London Gardens arena in London, Ontario. She only agreed to marry him if he dedicated himself to cleaning up in act when it came to drugs and alcohol. He promised he would and, while not always successful, he stayed as true to his word as he could because of his love for June. June Carter Cash died several months before Johnny did but, in one of her final conversations with him, she urged him to spend his final days recording anything and everything he could. One of the songs that arose out of his grief was his cover of Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”, which is generally regarded as one of the best covers of all time. The video for this song (which is, essentially, the story of his life) earned him an MTV award for Music Video of the Year.
A second influential person in Cash’s life was fellow singer and “Highwayman”, Waylon Jennings. Along with Kris Kirstofferson and Willie Nelson, Cash and Jennings formed a Country supergroup known as The Highwaymen. It was Jennings who started helping Johnny Cash maintain his health (they both had heart surgery at the same time, in the same hospital), as well as, with some of his career choices later on in life. As we all know, it is the mark of a true friend when they don’t hesitate to offer honest advice, even if it isn’t what we want to hear. This was true of Jennings, when he discouraged Johnny Cash from releasing a series of novelty songs that his record company was urging him to release in order to boost sagging record sales. Integrity matters. It did to Waylon Jennings and, ultimately, it did to Johnny Cash, too.
In a career that spanned nearly a half century, Johnny Cash sold millions of records and produced music that ranged from Country, to Blues, to Gospel, to Rock, to Traditional Roots musicians and so much more. He was a singer, an actor, a product spokesperson and a tv show host. He is one of the very few artists to be in both, The Country and Western Music Hall of Hall and The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame at the same time. He was a singer who was as comfortable on the stage of The Grand Ol’ Opry as he was surrounded by murderers and rapists in the gymnasium of a Federal prison. He was a man’s-man, who was loyal to his friends and faithful to his wife. Johnny Cash was The Man in Black. He says that he adopted his “look” because he felt it better reflected those people he sought to ally himself with (as opposed to the glittery outfits of singers such as Porter Wagoner). As you listen to the song, “Man in Black”, you will get a terrific sense of the values Cash held and the people he felt needed his representation. As legends go, they don’t come much bigger than the “Man in Black”, Johnny Cash. Enjoy.
The link to the music video for Man In Black by Johnny Cash can be found here.
The link to the music video for Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, as covered by Johnny Cash, can be found here.
The official website for Johnny Cash can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting good music in all of its forms and manifestations. A link to their great website can be found here.