Paul McNamee looks back at the incredible life of a musical hero. Johnny, we salute you...

Johnny Cash, one of the towering titans of modern music, died today (September 12) in NASHVILLE. He was 71.

Johnny Cash’s passing should be mourned like that of Elvis Presley. His influence on contemporary music is as great and far-reaching.

To call him a country star is to call a Ferrari an adequate car. He was a country singer, a folk singer, a brooding, rugged outlaw who wrestled with life’s big questions and brought dignity and strength and a timeless grace to everything he touched. He became a voice for the disenfranchised and the working man – hence the Man in Black. He shaped the career of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and countless others. He was a core influence on U2, Queens Of The Stone Age, Johnny Cash, Slipknot, Coldplay, The Strokes – in fact just about anyone who wanted their music to remain on the mean side, with hips and swagger and truth.

Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932, the middle of seven children, in a shack in Kingsland, Arkansas. His family moved to a cotton sharecroppers co-operative in Dyeus in 1934. He grew up working the land. The things he saw and the life he lived shaped the man and his songs.

In 1944, his elder brother Jack was killed in an accident in a sawmill. Johnny Cash mourned him for the rest of his life.

After a stint in the US Air Force, he got his first record contract with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in 1955. For a brief time, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins were a peerless quartet for the fledging label. They were there when rock and roll was birthed. In 1956, he scored his first hit with ‘I Walk The Line’, a song that was to become a signature tune. By then, a hectic work schedule – over 300 live shows a year – had pushed him towards amphetamines. He fought addiction for the rest of his life.

His second wife, June Carter Cash, pulled him out of the fire a few times. She was his soulmate and his guide. He frequently said that she kept him alive. Her death earlier this year was a surprise. Johnny Cash was the man afflicted with ill health, with countless bouts of pneumonia and the Parkinson’s Disease-like Shy-Drager Syndrome. His wife was not expected to go first. Though it had been reported that Johnny Cash had thrown himself into his work as a way of coping, it’s clear that he never recovered from her death. It was too much and it broke his heart.

Through the 60’s he scored hit after hit. He recorded ‘Live At Folsom Prison’ and ‘Live At San Quentin’, two fierce albums that cemented his image as the outsider. He made huge rating TV shows, he fought for the rights of the American Indians, he picked up a Grammy, he campaigned against the Vietnam War. He was humanist but a devout Christian who counted televangelist Billy Graham as a close friend. He was a man of great contradictions.

His career waned in the 70’s and lower still in the 80’s. He spent much of the late part of the Eighties touring with The Highwaymen – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

In 1994 he was reborn. Rick Rubin realised that one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th Century was being allowed to go to seed. He offered to record Johnny Cash, without ridiculous over–production, without studio trickery. ‘American Recordings’ delivered Johnny Cash to whole new audience. It was a dark, intense tour de force. Three more albums followed – each littered with curious covers of the songs of Beck, Danzig, U2, Will Oldham, each better than the last.

It’s fitting that ‘Hurt’, honoured at the Grammys and at the MTV Video Music Awards, will be remembered as his swansong. He took Nine Inch Nails‘ confused paean to drug addiction and made it a King Lear-like rage at the dying of the light.

It takes a heart of stone not to cry big wet tears watching it and thinking about Johnny Cash, the legend now gone. He will never be bettered.

Paul McNamee

As part of our tribute to the great man, we want you tell us what your favourite [a][/a] song is. Send your entry to Include your name, age, where you’re from and why you like it.