Seeing The CLO's 'Ring Of Fire?' Ten Johnny Cash Facts

Friday, 13 June 2014 06:28 AM Written by 

If you're going to see the CLO Cabaret presentation of Ring Of Fire: The Music Of Johnny Cash, the music will obviously be front and center.  It's not meant as historical chronicle. Nonetheless, it's easy to confuse the true narrative of Cash's life with the many myths and legends surrounding it.  It's finally well known that he never did prison time, but other facts about the man are worth knowing before you go, regardless of any conjecture you may hear.

He was a product of eastern Arkansas:

Born in Kingsland in 1932, he and his family settled on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta in 1935 when his dad, Ray Cash, received 20 acres of virgin land as part of a New Deal experiment to revive small farms, known as the Dyess Colony.  The new farmers had to clear the land themselves, no easy task.  Ray Cash farmed cotton.  One of Cash's hit singles, "Five Feet High And Rising," was inspired by childhood memories of a major flood that inundated (but didn't destroy) the farm.

His early musical heroes:

Jimmie Rodgers, the Louvin Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams were among his country heroes, along with black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and pop belter Frankie Laine.  Cash's musical tastes were always broader than country music alone. 

His real name:

"J.R. Cash." That's how family and close friends knew him. But initials didn't cut it when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1950, when he became "John R." Starting in 1955, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips billed him as "Johnny" on records to emphasize his youth. His original band was the "Tennessee Two," (guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant), later the "Tennessee Three" with drummer Fluke Holland added.

The Older Brother:

Jack Cash (1929-1944) was John's best friend. A deeply religious youth, he worked at a primitive sawmill near the Cash farm. Horrifically injured when accidentally caught in the blades, he died soon after and never faded from his younger brother's memory.

What made him the "Man In Black?"

His 1971 Top Five single with that title claimed he wore black for the downtrodden. His empathy is accurate, but practicality drove his decision. In 1955, as his performing career began, he wore flashy stage outfits including white sport jackets, similar to the outfits Elvis Presley wore. Over time, black became a prudent choice as it hid the inevitable dirt picked up on tour.

cash tenn two

The Man In White: Perkins, Cash and Grant, circa 1955

His first hits-country or pop?

Both. His first singles for Sun Records charted high in both fields. Not all his Columbia country hits succeeded on the pop charts except 1963's "Ring Of Fire." His surge in both fields came with his hit singles of "Folsom Prison Blues" (1968) and "A Boy Named Sue" (1969). recorded onstage at Folsom and San Quentin, respectively. Some early tunes like "Get Rhythm" (which inspired the name of this blog) qualify as rockabilly.

Who got him off drugs and when?

Robert Hilburn's definitive biography Johnny Cash: The Life, which I reviewed for the PG, reveals the truth about his 1967 detox. Cash was aided by then-girlfriend June Carter, her family and Nashville psychiatrist Nat Winston. He did not totally quit pill use (as the flawed biopic Walk The Line indicated) but could control his intake. He quit completely after son John Carter Cash was born in 1970, but relapsed several years later. His drug use didn't end until illness forced him to quit touring in 1997.

Was he part of the "Million Dollar Quartet?"

He popped in during the impromptu December 1956 jam session at Sun studios at Sam Phillips's behest to be photographed.  Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins had just started jamming out of nowhere when Elvis visited a Carl Perkins recording session. Cash had his photo taken with the group but on the tapes, he's inaudible. Only Elvis, Lewis and Perkins can be heard singing.  He may have been absent or at least off mike.

Was he always somber and serious onstage?

Succinctly, hell no.  Cash was funny and animated, and comedy was part of his stage show, not just in goofy songs like "Dirty Ol' Egg-Suckin' Dog," "The One On The Right Is On The Left" or "A Boy Named Sue."  Check out this August 8, 1959 Elvis Presley impersonation from the Southern California Town Hall Party TV show

This skit came from a special comedy-themed episode of Cash's ABC TV show that aired February 10, 1971. He's introduced by master country comedienne Minnie Pearl. Other guests included June, who made her early name as a Grand Ole Opry comic along with Minnie, George Lindsey, Jim Nabors and country singer Ferlin Husky.

"Is he an "Americana" or "Roots" act?

He pretty much transcends category, and his country stardom has been a given as as his influence on rockabilly and rock. But Cash's fan base among folk artists and fans existed before the terms like "Roots" or "Americana" were used  (or, in my opinion, overused) in a musical context. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge (who wrote Cash's hit "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"), Ramblin' Jack Elliott and other Folk Revival artists considered Cash a peer. Besides, for over 30 years, his s stage show included the Carter Family, country and folk music fountainheads which included June and sisters Helen and Anita. Their mother, Maybelle Addington Carter, was one-third of the Oriignal Carter Family.  Cash himself is justifiably in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.


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