"How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell," said the late country music icon Johnny Cash. "There is a deep, wide gulf a chasm and in that chasm is no place for any man."
By the time of his death from complications of diabetes in 2003, the 71-year-old musician had seen it all. There was an Old Testament quality to his scarred, weathered face that his late second wife June Carter Cash defined as "lived in". And there was rumbling authority in that baritone voice which writer Robert Oermann described as "the voice of those who had no voice of their own the forgotten prisoner, the taken-for-granted labourer, the ignored homemaker, the exploited miner, the viciously cheated Native American, the oppressed migrant worker, the victims of racism, the downtrodden poor".
He was the man who worked on a farm in the midst of the Depression, who broke all the Beatles' concert records in their native Liverpool, who championed the rights of Native Americans, received threats from the Ku Klux Klan as a result, and, at his lowest point, nearly destroyed himself through substance abuse. Johnny's strength always would lie in his grass-roots credibility.
John Ray Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas a place he later described as, "the white poverty stricken South". The depression had driven thousands of farmers out of business and he grew up picking cotton on a farm collective. His Baptist upbringing meant that the music he heard from an early age was almost entirely religious, and it made an indelible impression. "From the time I was a little boy," he once said, "I never had any doubt that I was gonna be singing on the radio."
It wasn't to be an easy leap though. After graduating from high school in the Fifties, he held down a number of odd jobs before volunteering for a four-year stint in the Air Force. Stationed in Germany, Johnny endured what he would later describe as a miserably lonely period. He also used the time, however, to learn to play the guitar and began turning what he had originally written as poetry into song lyrics. From this early period came some of his most famous songs, including the signature track Folsom Prison Blues.
After leaving the Air Force in 1954, Johnny married Vivian Liberto and moved to Memphis Tennessee, where he earned a meagre living selling appliances. Nonetheless, his mind was on music and by 1955 he had hooked up with a pair of musicians who would become his backing band, the Tennessee Two. The trio played local churches, dressing in black because they didn't have matching suits and it was from this that he got his nickname, "The Man In Black".
Eventually Johnny was granted an audience with trailblazing producer Sam Phillips, at whose Sun Studios the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had made their names. On June 21, 1955, a month after the singer's first daughter, Rosanne, was born, Sun released his debut single, Cry Cry Cry
. It went to number 14 in the charts and a year later Johnny left his sales job to concentrate on making music. His follow-up singles Folsom Prison Blues
and I Walk The Line
, would propel him to the front-rank of country stars of the era.
Things happened fast after that. Johnny got a big recording contract and was embraced by the folk revival of the early Sixties, becoming one of the first to champion the new voice of Bob Dylan. But by the middle of the decade he was embroiled in a battle with his own shadow. To counter the pressures of sudden fame he did 300 concerts in 1961 alone Johnny had become addicted to controlled substances. His marriage he was by then the father of four daughters was disintegrating, and the stories of tour excess and destruction match those of any modern day rocker.
In 1967, the artist drove a tractor off a cliff into a lake near his Hendersonville, Tennessee, home. A neighbour pulled his half-dead body from the water. Soon after, with the help of the singer June Carter, Johnny cleaned up. He and June were married the following year and later had a son, John.
From there on, Johnny underwent a personal and artistic revival, and by 1969 he had become the best-selling recording artist alive. The Seventies saw even more career triumphs in both the music and film worlds, with a stand-out role opposite Kirk Douglas in the 1972 film A Gun Fight.
By the Eighties his star was waning, however, as country was increasingly dominated by younger, pop-inclined artists who favoured slick production. Nevertheless, he remained a huge concert draw, but even live appearances seemed imperilled when, in 1989, he underwent double-bypass heart surgery and almost died of pneumonia.
Johnny recovered, and as the Nineties progressed, so did his music career. In 1992, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and, a year later, contributed a vocal performance to U2's Zooropa
album. In 1994, the singer released American Recordings,
a stripped-down solo and acoustic album that many consider one of his best. Apart from earning him a 1995 Grammy Award, American Recordings
restored the artist's sense of mission. Johnny Cash was back.
His enormous contribution to country music history is unquestionable, but about the prospect of an eager new audience Johnny remained philosophical. "I no longer have a grandiose attitude about my music being a powerful force for change," he said. Even so, he was alway passionate about his beliefs: "A lot of people think of country singers as right-wing, redneck bigots," he said. "I don't think I'm like that."