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Artist Spotlight: Johnny Cash

by Napster

Artist Spotlight: Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash was one of country music's most influential and indelible icons. His trademark baritone growl and disdainful sneer framed reams of songs that he recorded over decades. These songs -- "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire" and "A Boy Named Sue" among them -- are cemented in the lexicon of not only country music, but popular culture as well.

Cash's unique sound wasn't complex by any means. No doubt inspired by his upbringing on his family's cotton farm in Arkansas, his Southern gothic-tinged narratives and lighthearted country tunes were simple, straightforward slices of life, warts and all. Most would touch on the universal themes of love, God and murder -- in fact, Love, God, Murder was the title of his 2000 retrospective offering.

When Johnny Cash left the U.S. Air Force in 1954, he headed to Memphis. He auditioned for legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, with the hopes of becoming a gospel singer. Phillips had other ideas, and when Cash presented the mogul with "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Hey Porter," Phillips knew he was onto something. Ironically, it was partly his new boss' refusal to let Cash record a gospel album that led to the singer signing with Columbia in 1958.

With his career in overdrive, the singer became addicted to the amphetamines that helped him keep up his furious pace. By 1968 -- and with the help of June Carter, whom he would marry later that year -- Cash kicked his addiction (though he would struggle again with addiction in later years). The rest of the decade was his most fruitful period: At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin earned Gold status; Cash was named Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association; and The Johnny Cash Show premiered on NBC.

For any artist, success over multiple decades reflects an ability and willingness to reinvent yourself in a way that attracts each successive generation of new fans. This is certainly true of Cash, who in 1985 joined fellow outlaw artists Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in The Highwaymen, and in 1993 joined forces with hip super-producer Rick Rubin. In both cases, Cash was rewarded with chart success, Grammys, more CMAs love, a few MTV Awards, and even passage into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Man in Black passed away in Nashville, Tenn., on September 12, 2003, due to complications brought on by diabetes. He survived his beloved wife by just four months.

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