What made Johnny Cash the ultimate badass was his ability to bridge people together regardless of taste in music, cultural differences, or political ideology. Johnny Cash could tackle some of the most difficult issues facing a tumultuous American society as it saw the emergence of rock and roll and the counterculture because they man had such an air of respect about him. When he spoke, everyone quieted, and listened. Great music and musicians dominate genres. Legends transcend genres. It’s is quite the daunting challenge to find someone who doesn’t have something nice to say about Johnny Cash regardless of sex, race, creed, status, or cultural background.
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1. Intercepting the News of the Death of Joseph Stalin
That’s right, the first American to hear about the death of the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and report it to the United States government was none other than the Man in Black. Johnny Cash spent 4 years in the Air Force, rising to Staff Sargent, and working in Landsberg, West Germany for the Air Force Security Service. The name of Cash’s first band was “The Landsberg Barbarians,” an homage to the German town he called home.
While stationed in Landsburg, Cash was working as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, monitoring transmissions from the Soviet Army. Around March 5th, 1953, he was translating Morse signals when can came upon the important information. At the height of hostilities during the Cold War, this intelligence was considered crucial.
Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force in July of 1954 to pursue his career in music.
2. Recording “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
It was the song that made Kris Kristofferson a household name, but it wasn’t Ray Stevens’ version of it in 1969 that stalled at #55 on the charts, or Kristofferson’s own version which didn’t chart at all that made it such an iconic part of the American songbook. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to being named Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.
It’s because only Johnny Cash had the credibility and undying loyalty of the country music community to sing what was a controversial song at the time, and have people listen through the controversy to the heart of the story that Kristofferson had so eloquently captured.
Johnny Cash wasn’t a country music Outlaw in the traditional sense, but he was an honorary Outlaw in every sense, and when he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he took Kristofferson from a barely-known songwriter to a national celebrity.
3. Concerts and Albums From Folsom and San Quentin Prisons
Probably the most obvious of Johnny Cash’s badass moments, but ones that cannot be understated in their significance both musically and culturally, Johnny Cash performed at The Folsom State Prison and the San Quentin Prison—two notorious lockups in California—in 1968 and 1969 respectively, with the live recordings taken from the concerts becoming significant and commercially successful live albums that are given credit for being some of the best ever in country music.
Johnny Cash played two shows at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, resulting in 15 live tracks for the At Folsom Prison Album. At San Quentin was recorded on February 24, 1969 and was more of a linear recording of the event, though the original LP took out some songs because of space restrictions. The two albums are given credit for resurrecting Cash’s career, while raising awareness about the issues facing individuals in incarceration, and bridging cultural differences between music fans during a tumultuous time in America. If people were not aware before, Johnny Cash’s prison albums announced to the world inside and outside of country music that he truly was a badass.
4. Having A Smoke With A.P. Carter
Depending on who to talk to, the father of country music is either the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, or the patriarch of the Carter Family, A.P. Cater. Seeing how Johnny Cash married into the Carter Family, he would probably say the answer is the latter.
Producer, songwriter, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement was famous for shooting home movies when hanging around his musical friends and cohorts, and he was fortunate enough to have captured the moment Johnny Cash decided to drive out to the grave site of A.P. Carter at the Mount Vernon Methodist Church Cemetery in Virginia to have a smoke with the man responsible for the first ever commercial country music group. The clip below comes from the movie Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies.
Johnny Cash’s efforts to help the less fortunate throughout his life have been well-documented, and on June 10th 1978 at the annual United Nations Citation Dinner in New York City, he was presented with the United Nations Humanitarian Award.
6. Hosting the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle
You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet” the recording session at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world.
The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard”¦” Johnny Cash explains. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.” (read more on the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle)
7. Sharing an Apartment with Waylon Jennings
Before Johnny Cash married June Carter, and before Waylon Jennings married Jessi Colter, and the two men were picking up the pieces from recent divorces, they shared a pad at the Fontaine Royal Apartments in Madison, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. At that time in the mid-60’s, Johnny Cash was a star, but Waylon was still a newcomer. By all accounts, the two men would barely see each other, and would be in and out at all manner of the day and night, leave on tour, come back, be out the next morning for a studio session, usually while taking trucker pills and sleeping very little.
Stories abound about some of the happenings at Fontaine Royal, with some considering it to be the equivalent of a country music “stabbin’ cabin.” One story says as the two men would walk by the swimming pool on their way in or out, throwing money into it for the neighborhood kids to dive in and retrieve. Oh, to be a fly on that wall….
8. Releasing Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian
Many artists and people talk and good talk about supporting the so often wronged American Indian, but Johnny Cash stepped up to the plate and did so in a big way when he released this concept album paying tribute to the stories and struggles of the American Indian. Johnny Cash had Cherokee blood in his family, and claims this was one of the inspirations for the album.
Aside from the music, this album is significant in so many other ways. Though Willie Nelson’s conceptualized albums Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger are often given credit for being the first conceptualized albums in country music, Bitter Tears came out in 1964; a decade before those Willie records. Furthermore the album was released ahead of the popularization of Native American issues that happened in the late 60’s as part of the counterculture movement. Way more than a trendy work looking to exploit a pet issue of guilt-riddled baby boomers, Bitter Tears was a groundbreaking approach to the album concept in country music that carried a sincere concern and reverence for the American Indian, illustrating Cash’s dedication as a humanitarian throughout his career.
9. Inviting Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show
The Johnny Cash show was badass enough in its own right in how Johnny reached out to every corner of the American music world to create magical, legendary moments on a weekly basis from the Ryman Auditorium. The Johnny Cash Show Ran from ran from June of 1969 to March of 1971 on ABC, featuring a total of 58 episodes and not a bad one in the bunch.
But if one episode stood out, it was Bob Dylan’s appearance in 1969 around his recording of his Nashville Skyline record. It symbolized the confluence of two music worlds, and two titans of them and the results were magic. From the original Rolling Stone article covering the event:
The Dylan appearance was no secret in Nashville, fortunately. It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis. But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers. There is no doubt that a good part of the audience was there just to see Cash and didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But the seats and aisles of the Opry were full, and Dylan did not lack a fine representation of people familiar with his work.
10. Recording “Hurt” From NIN’s Trent Reznor
There were many songs, especially from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings era that The Man In Black took from great to legendary, but none resonated so deeply with a generation like this one. “Hurt” off of the Nine Inch Nails’ album The Downward Spiral from 1994 was nominated for a Grammy in 1996, but wasn’t an especially well-known song outside of the industrial music mindset. It certainly wasn’t on the radar of country fans when Cash cut it in 2002, but it became arguably his last big hit, and the doorway for an entire new generation of fans to find love for Johnny Cash, helped along by an iconic video.
11. (Bonus) Flipping The Warden The Bird
Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot at the Cash concert in 1969 at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall. The pose was the result of Cash’s response to the request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Marshall has since said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”
But the picture remained relatively obscure until 1998 when Johnny was working with legendary producer Rick Rubin on his American Recordings albums. The second American album Unchained won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album. But could you hear Johnny Cash’s music on the country radio? Not so much. Rubin called country radio a “trendy scene,” and decided to fire a shot right at Music Row. Rubin dug deep and pulled out $20,000 to take a full page ad out in Billboard Magazine. The ad featured the famous Cash bird flipping, and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read more on the middle finger photo)
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