Photo by Heinrich Klaffs

The ring of fire still burns

Years after death, Cash's legend lives on

September 8, 2016

The ring of fire still burns

John Ellis

Who would’ve thought that J.R Cash from Kingsland, Ark. would assemble some forty five national awards in those husky seventy one years.  That near-century echoed sorrow, moral struggle and his ultimate redemption into his music career, and sixty years later that influence is still heard around the world.

Cash was a melodic storyteller with a voice described by his late wife June Carter-Cash as, “steady like a train and sharp like a razor”.  He held the tough guy facade in one hand and a tune in the other, a combination that assured the musician twenty Grammys.

Dubbed the “Man in Black” by producer Sam Phillips in 1955, Cash’s signature look revealed his distinct outlook on life.  Aside from the fact that black shirts were the only clothes he and his band, the Tennessee Three, all owned dressing in black was a statement for the musician.

Cash, considered one of the most influential musicians of all time sits with President Richard Nixon in the oval office.

Cash wore black to hold a mirror to the world he perceived.  He reflected the pain he saw in society upon itself, using his fame and influence to make that injustice known.

“Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine I do suppose, in our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes.”  Cash’s ragged baritone echoes these lyrics in the iconic “Man in Black”, “But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, up front there ought ‘a be a Man in Black.”

His acknowledgement of the misery in the world came from a place of genuine struggle that manifested itself in the drug addiction that rose in pair with his popularity.

He battled his illness and destructive habits with music, classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Walk the Line” speaking the mind of the troubled musician, dictating the balancing act he attempted between his career, his family and his addiction.

Cash addresses his crowd in Bremen, West Germany, in September of 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs, courtesy of Creative Commons.

That balance tipped in 1977 when Cash was admitted to rehab following drug related incidents that were affecting his performances.  Over the next twenty years the songwriter battled his addiction with his fists raised until he was released for the last time in 1992.

Considered a changed man by many, Cash walked out with a newfound understanding of the world he lived in.  He still had the gravel that rattled his voice and soul, but his music diverged from the roughness his solo performances had accumulated.

He toured with fellow musicians, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as the musical powerhouse, “the Highwaymen” from the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s.

Cash receives an award from a Marine sergeant during his performance for military personnel at the naval station.

He met the final years of his life with the sorrow and heartbreak that fed his career, as he said goodbye to June Carter on May 15, 2003.

Following her death, John believed that his only reason for living was his music.  He solidified that belief as he passed away four months later, shortly after completing his final album, “American IV: the Man Comes Around”.

The complex emotions dictated with simple words in his songs expressed the pain he felt through his life.  Nearly thirteen years after his death, he still stands tall as one of the most purely influential artists in the history of music.

“There’s no way around grief and loss: you can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you just have to go into it, through it, and, hopefully, come out the other side.” Cash said in a late-in-life interview, “The world you find there will never be the same as the world you left.”

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

1 Comment

One Response to “The ring of fire still burns”

  1. Heather Kunz on September 9th, 2016 11:48 am

    Beautiful tribute to a great artist. I love reading your writing, John. Keep at it!

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