NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - Not all pioneers know exactly where they’re going, and that was definitely the case for Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two.
Cash, guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant _ the last surviving member of the group who passed away Sunday morning at age 83 in Jonesboro, Ark., after an aneurysm and stroke _ changed the future of American music and popular culture with their distinct boom-chicka-boom beat.
Grant always freely admitted the soon-to-be historic trio had no special insight as they shaped that universal beat _ a sound that launched a million imitators with songs such as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues, “Ring of Fire,” “Big River” and “Cry Cry Cry.”
“Our inability had more to do with our success than our ability did, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Grant once said in an interview.
Grant and Perkins were auto mechanics in Memphis, Tenn., who practiced together at the shop when their co-worker Roy Cash introduced them to his brother, John, in 1954. They quickly realized all three couldn’t play acoustic rhythm guitar, said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
So Perkins, who died in 1968 from injuries suffered in a house fire, borrowed a Fender Telecaster with volume controls stuck at wide open, Rumble said, and Grant bought a Kay bass. The resulting sound _ The Johnny Cash beat _ was both simple and driving, and there from the start.
“Luther played the way he did because he couldn’t really play any way else,” Rumble said. “That very sparse, plowing rhythmic sound was something they just fell into. They didn’t just sit there and work on it for weeks. That’s pretty much the way they started out.”
After initially failing to impress Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, the trio passed a second audition and began recording in 1955 on a roster that included Elvis Presley and other proto-rockers such as Carl Perkins. They earned modest success quickly and built on it with appearances first on the Louisiana Hayride and eventually the Grand Ole Opry.
In time, that simple rhythmic pattern would infiltrate everything. To a young Marty Stuart, that sound coming out of the radio as he grew up in small-town Mississippi was an invitation to dream.
“I think the word that comes to my mind is originalty,” Stuart said. “They were pure American originals, all three of them.”
And though Cash’s name was out front, there was never any doubt where that sound that helped launch rock `n’ roll and modernize country music came from.
“The Johnny Cash sound was created by the three of them equally, you know what I mean?” said Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter. “There was none of that `boom chicka boom’ without Marshall. You can’t separate the three of them at that point when it all started. It was one thing. You know, they’re united again, the three of them.”
Rosanne Cash spent the last days of Grant’s life at his side in Arkansas, she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. They reconnected last Wednesday at rehearsals for a Johnny Cash Festival appearance that served as a fundraiser to help restore the late singer’s boyhood home in Dyess. Johnny Cash, born in Kingsland in south-central Arkansas, died in 2003.