On February 26, 1932, he was born to poor Southern Baptist sharecroppers in the tiny town of Kingsland, Arkansas. In 1950, he was stationed in West Germany to eavesdrop on Soviet radio traffic for the U.S. Air Force. By 1956, he was perched atop the Billboard charts with his song “I Walk the Line” and well along the road to becoming an American legend. He was Johnny Cash, and today would have been his 78th birthday.
Over a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Cash’s distinctively deep baritone and “freight train” rhythm resonated with fans of country, rock, blues, folk, and gospel music and carried him to the pinnacle of musical success. He won 17 Grammy Awards, sold over 90 million records, hosted a successful primetime T.V. show, and was inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. But along with these great heights there also came devastating lows. Cash’s struggles with drugs and alcohol cost him his first marriage, wreaked havoc upon his health, and saw him jailed for smuggling amphetamines across the U.S.-Mexico border. Through it all, however, Cash remained true to his humble roots while singing both to and for the downtrodden, downhearted, and down-and-out. He was a rebel, a reformer, and above all, a relevent artist who continued to reach new audiences up until his death in 2003 from complications with diabetes.
If you’d like to check out works by and about Cash, the sheer volume of material might seem a bit overwhelming. Cash alone released nearly 100 albums, and since his death, the number of written and recorded tributes has skyrocketed. For starters, though, try the following interesting and essential books, CD’s, and DVD’s for a fitting way to celebrate the Man in Black’s birthday:
Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash – Published in 1997, this compelling read is actually Cash’s second autobiography following Man in Black (1975). With candor, humor, and humility, Cash recalls his Sun Records years with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, examines his spiritual beliefs, and tackles his battles with drugs and shortcomings as a father. This fascinating book also served as the main inspiration for the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.”
The Legend – This 4-CD set is a terrific one-stop option for sampling Cash’s musical legacy. Focusing on his years with both Columbia and Sun Records, the collection includes hits such as “Jackson,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Hey Porter” along with seven previously unreleased tracks.
Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist – This stunning graphic novel is the first illustrated biography of Cash. A bestseller and award-winner in Europe, it creatively and vividly depicts his life story using a black-and-white design that is appropriately bleak and breathtaking.
I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny by Vivian Cash – Most are aware of Cash’s long, high-profile marriage to June Carter Cash, but fewer remember his first wife, Vivian. In this intimate memoir, Vivian Cash recalls their 14-year marriage from 1954-1968. Featuring many previously unpublished photos and letters from Cash, this book offers a unique perspective from the mother of Cash’s four daughters and the inspiration for “I Walk the Line.”
American Recordings Series – This 6-CD series ushered in a “Johnny Cash Renaissance” with the first album’s 1994 release. After leaving Columbia Records, Cash teamed with rap producer Rick Rubin to record original songs along with covers of diverse artists such as U2, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Neil Diamond. The final CD was released this week for Cash’s birthday, and the series order as as follows: American Recordings, American II: Unchained, American III: Solitary Man, American IV: The Man Comes Around, American V: A Hundred Highways, and American VI: Ain’t No Grave. (Hint: Select “Search All Libraries” to locate CD’s)
The Best of the Johnny Cash Show, 1969-1971 – This DVD documentary presents highlights from Cash’s popular yet short-lived variety show. While the program was both a forum to discuss social issues and to highlight musical talent, the DVD focuses on music with performances by Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles among others. Click here to watch Cash duet with Bob Dylan on the show’s premiere.