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Striding the earth clad in black from head to boot, fists clenched and speaking in rumbling tones of love and God and murder, Johnny Cash can seem more a tall tale than a man. If he'd performed and recorded in the first half of the 20th century, he might have achieved the status of folk hero, like Babe Ruth or Pretty Boy Floyd. Coming to prominence in an era dominated by electronic media, Cash has instead become something more modern: His stentorian yet humble salutation ("Hello. I'm Johnny Cash") and sartorial simplicity make him an honest-to-God icon. His music and image will retain their currency well into the new century.
Cash turned 70 last week. Most folks his age have long since retired, but Cash keeps turning out amazing records. In the past five years, he's released three albums, including the marvelous heaven-bound country rock of 1996's Unchained, as well as several reissues and collections of older material. And he's done this even as his health has suffered a precipitous decline. In the late '90s, Cash was told he had Shy-Drager syndrome, a form of Parkinson's disease, but his diagnosis has since been revised to autonomic neuropathy, a condition that has left him prone to pneumonia and that has on more than one occasion nearly killed him.
Nearly killed him. Cash recently announced that he's feeling stronger every day and that he still has a lot of living to do. "When death starts beating the door down," he advises in 1997's Cash: The Autobiography, "you need to be reaching for your shotgun." His weapon of choice remains his music. To that end, Cash will soon release American IV, another in his series of collaborations with producer Rick Rubin; if his health continues to improve, he hopes to do some limited touring in support of the record. In the meantime, any number of events are planned to celebrate this milestone birthday -- everything from last week's "Cash Bash" on Country Music Television to the April publication of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader to a tribute album due out in June that will include a track by old friend Bob Dylan. Most exciting of all, Columbia Records is reissuing five of his best early albums this month, with five more on the way this year.
Anticipating his final days, Cash writes in his autobiography: "I can feel the rhythms of the earth, the growing and the blooming and the fading and the dying, in my bones." But listen again to his finest recordings -- a musically compelling body of work, one that conveys a world where something is at stake, not just emotionally but morally -- and you know Cash has been channeling life's vital rhythms for half a century.
Cash owes much of his visibility to timing. Though he is, in temperament and sensibility, a country artist to the core, he arrived on the scene through a brief window in the 1950s when his thumping country music could also be heard as rockabilly. That fortuitous entrance, teamed with an appreciation for rock songwriting and a well-publicized appetite for self-destruction, has made him one of the few country acts ever widely embraced by the rock audience: To date, only Cash, the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley have been inducted as performers into both the country and rock & roll halls of fame.
Cash became a star at Sun Records in Memphis, but from the start he was of a different breed than Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the label's other famous rockabillies. For one thing, he was older. By the time his first single, "Cry Cry Cry," cracked the country Top 20 at the end of 1955, Cash was nearly 24 years old, a grown man with a grown man's responsibilities: He'd already married, served a four-year military stint in Germany, worked in a Michigan auto plant, sold appliances door to door and become a father (of daughter Rosanne).
Along with memories of an Arkansas youth that included row after row of cotton, as well as the death of a beloved older brother in a grisly lumberyard accident, Cash poured this full adult life into his early songs -- the most consistently thrilling work of his career. (Check out Rhino's The Sun Years for a good single-disc introduction.) The steadfastness of "I Walk the Line" and the romantic fatalism of "There You Go," the domestic comedy of "Mean-Eyed Cat" and the domestic tragedy of "Home of the Blues," the sweet home Tennessee of "Hey Porter" and the class resentment of "Folsom Prison Blues" -- this is rockabilly for people who have to get up and go to work in the morning.
And the kids could dig it, too. Thanks to the strange boogie-woogie guitar of Luther Perkins and the booming slapped bass of Marshall Grant (the incomparable Tennessee Two), these boom-chucking Sun sides provided Cash the rhythmic template he's used ever since. And not just Cash. On "Big River," he invents Bob Dylan's phrasing (I met her, accidentally, in St. Pawwwl, Minn.) while Perkins and Grant, augmented by the ferocious acousic guitar of producer Jack Clement, lay down a rhythm so propulsive and visceral that country boys and roots rockers have been copying it for decades.