Country music evolves out of Anglo-Saxon ballads brought to the United States originally by the first Americans in the 17th century. The music often focuses on sacred religious hymns or grim, century-old tales of murder or other disasters that were often rewritten to comment on more recent events (McPherson 1).
Although the traditional qualities of country music still remain an influence to artists, the genre has evolved to become what we know today as modern country music where artists strive to push the boundaries and to bring a unique sound to their audiences. Born in February 1932 in Kingsland Arkansas, Cash was the fourth of seven children. Throughout his childhood his family lived in poverty, struggling just to make ends meet.
Despite the difficulty that Cash’s family faced, these obstacles not only made him a stronger man, but they also affected his music in a profound way. Better known as “The Man in Black” a nod to his wardrobe as well as to the darker themes of his music, Cash’s songs were inspired by events that took place throughout his life (Johnny Cash 2).
Growing up, Cash was influenced by the music of Jimmy Rogers whose style was to sing songs that ordinary people could relate to. Cash was also inspired by rock & roll artists such as Bob Dillon. Driven by influences of local country, bluegrass, and gospel music, Cash began to play the guitar and write songs at age twelve (Johnny Cash Biography 1).
After serving four years in the air force, Cash joined his first band, the “Tennessee Two.” Their sound was a combination of country-western and the blues or better known as rockabilly. When Cash signed his first record contract with Sun Records, he joined a group with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis called “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
Shortly after joining the group, his first number one hit I walk the Line topped the charts. Although before going solo, being in a group with well known rock-n-rollers didn’t stop Cash from sticking to his country roots. He and his songs were rooted in the basics of a country life: the land, lost loves, wanderlust, the seasons, lonely trains hooting across the still prairie night, preachers and prisons, and sweet Jesus, and home sweet home.
Cash said, “I don’t go in a lot for that flashy stuff.” Nothing but a minimum of talk and then down to the substance of Johnny Cash and his show: singing songs (Cashing In 1-2). His style was to simply stand on stage and sing his songs without the extra special effects of sparks and flashy lights.
Cash’s musical influences weren’t the only aspect of his career that categorized him as a traditional country music legend. His performances were a perfect example of traditional country. The use of instruments like the acoustic guitar and the fiddle is only one difference between modern country and Cash’s traditional performances. In his concerts, there were no flashy lights, sparks, and smoke. It was just him-“The Man in Black” with his acoustic guitar and his riveting songs. Cash kept his performances low-key because the songs are what he truly wanted to communicate to his fans.
Since Cash’s songs were influenced by different genres of music and by the events of his life, much of his music came from a deep, dark place within him. Through his performances, Cash showed his audiences his internal struggles. He was like a prowling tiger onstage, as if he was fighting demons. Inside Cash, the churchman and the outlaw were having a brawl (Corliss 4).
Despite the dark power of his lyrics, ever since Johnny Cash came out of the Arkansas delta, he has been singing about sorrow with spectacular success (Write is Wrong 1). His struggles with love, loss, and drugs caused him to have relentless power and passion onstage that charmed audiences everywhere.
Throughout his life, Cash had many successful albums and hit songs including Folsom Prison Blues, Get Rhythm, and Ring of Fire. Despite his struggle with drugs and alcohol, Cash continued to make a huge impact on the music industry. During his career that spanned almost five decades, Cash was the personification of traditional country music to many people around the world (Johnny Cash 9).
Even after his death in September 2003, his music is still listened to by millions of people around the world. Singer Kris Kristofferson who sang at Cash’s funeral said “Johnny represented the best of America, and we won’t see his like again” (Silverman 1).
Cash is responsible for making great traditional country music and for influencing many other country artists to follow in his footsteps. Throughout time, his music has and will continue to be celebrated and it will remain a building block for future musical artists. To many Cash is an American icon.