A man named Johnny Cash
Nov 28, 2019
Man in Black. Storyteller. Advocate for the downtrodden, and one half of the fabled Cash and Carter romance.
For a man with so many names, it’s surprising the beloved Johnny Cash was born without one. The journey of how a farm boy, with the initials J.R. and a penchant for gospel, would later become one of the world’s most treasured musicians, is one for the storybooks. A bundle of contradictions, and over-spilling with tales from Tennessee and beyond: just like his music, Johnny Cash was and remains an enigma. 2019 marked fifty years since his calm, baritone voice was thrown into the dizzying heights of worldwide fame. It began with 'I Walk the Line', his first meteoric hit, and a pledge of devotion to his first wife. Today, it marks history as a Billboard Number One, Grammy Hall of Fame winner, and even now sits at the number one spot for Rolling Stone magazine’s list of Greatest Country Songs, and Number 30 on its list of Greatest Songs of All Time. That was just his first hit. It’s fair to say the name Johnny Cash is synonymous with many things for many people, and being one of the greatest performers of the 20th Century is just one of them.
So, what can we learn about telling our own stories – as brands and as individuals – from the master of it all?
Who was Johnny Cash?
Cash’s childhood was characterised by gospel music, most famously performed by the esteemed Carter Family, then royalty of country music – the princess being June Carter herself. So, after long, tough days working the fields as a child, Cash remembers rushing home to tune into these old Christian country jaunts in what can only be described as escapism; imagining himself in the vivid tales and enjoying how they sounded. It was these themes of hope, love and redemption that he treasured, and which would go on to influence his whole career.
Stories of truth
Powerful and rueful, it’s not just the fact that he told stories with a great voice that made Johnny Cash a remarkable man – it’s the stories he chose to tell with it. In addition to the themes of hope and redemption he grew up with, Cash put pen to paper to unravel the truthful experience of life right here in the moment – the good and the bad, streets of mud, dealin’ studs and all. He examined the thread-work of the American Dream as it came apart at the seams, picking up all the loose threads that were forgotten about (or overlooked) by most people in society, and weaved them into the kind of blanket everybody could curl under.
He embarked upon this mission first with a string of concept albums throughout the sixties; albums which he dedicated to minority groups wronged by the Promised Land. In the documentary 'The Gift' released by YouTube just this month, Cash explains that he was drawn to these voices to highlight the mistakes society had made – and for his concept albums - 'Ride this Train', 'Ballads of the American Indians' and 'Blood Sweat and Tears' among them – he would get into his character as if a method actor. Living in authentic western clothes, carrying a gun (filled with blanks) in his holster, in his words helped him ‘to really get into the flavour of the west in emotion and spirit’.
In this vein, he’d go on to represent another silenced population of the United States, and one he felt a great affinity to: those who fell afoul of the law. Johnny Cash’s 1968 album saw him create possibly his most widely acclaimed record of all; At Folsom Prison.
A lively, animated performance conducted live in front of 2,000 convicted criminals, the tracks encompassed many beloved hits, including 'Jackson' with June Carter, the suitably named 'Folsom Prison Blues', and 'Greystone Chapel' – a song written by inmate Glen Shirley, a man on a life sentence, whom Cash later managed to get released. In just over five years, he’d have completed a number of additional live prison albums, including Live in San Quinten, På Österåker and 'A Concert Behind Prison Walls' – all at the request of inmates who had heard about the lucky crowd at Folsom Prison.
Forging a connection
Audiences of Johnny Cash could often be seen whooping and screaming out in laughter one minute, and wiping away tears the next. The beauty of his music lies in this unique capacity for stirring emotions; creating a human connection with people in old honky-tonk bars, prison cafeterias, and international stadiums alike. And while you don’t need to be a scientist to know that faith - one of the key ingredients in his career - brings people together, it’s the common ground his stories created that was so powerful.
Studies show that our brains are hard-wired, through thousands of years of evolution, to look for stories even when they are not there. A good story provokes the listener to release oxytocin, the happy hormone, triggering both empathy and a sense of togetherness. Johnny Cash was a master of the art of storytelling right until his final album 'American IV: The Man Comes Around' – his first non-compilation album to go gold in 30 years – recorded not long before June Carter’s death, which came just four months before his own. Yet even from the other side, his baritone voice carries the stories he told across the world every day. With almost nine million monthly listeners on Spotify alone, a platform not even created in his lifetime, his genius for sharing stories lives on.