- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

Johnny Cash, the country music bad boy-turned-revered elder statesman, died early yesterday morning at a Nashville hospital. He was 71 years old.

The singer had been suffering for years from a variety of ailments, including autonomic neuropathy, a nervous system disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease. A bout with pneumonia nearly killed him in 1998.

According to his manager, Lou Robin, it was complications from diabetes that resulted in a fatal respiratory failure, only three days after Mr. Cash completed treatment for an inflamed pancreas.

His death came four months after the passing of his second wife, June Carter Cash. A star in her own right as a member of the pioneering Carter Family, she helped bring the singer back in the late 1960s from the brink of drug and alcohol addiction and guided him into a Christian faith to which he increasingly devoted himself over the remainder of his life.

He is survived by daughters Rosanne, Tara, Cindy and Kathy and son John Carter Cash, and a brother, Tommy Cash, who was also a country singer.

Johnny Cash died after having revivified a five-decade career that earned him the respect of each succeeding generation of rock, pop and country stars.

His late-period recordings, produced by Rick Rubin, included spare, acoustically driven interpretations of modern pop and rock songs from artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe and Loudon Wainwright.

Just last month, the trend-assimilating, age-defying singer earned an MTV Video Music Award for the clip accompanying the song “Hurt,” a cover of a song originally performed by Nine Inch Nails, an industrial-electronica band.

Born in Arkansas to a Depression-era sharecropper, Mr. Cash worked cotton fields and migrated north to a Michigan auto-plant production line; he sold appliances in Memphis, Tenn., and did a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War.

While stationed in Germany in 1950, he made two fateful discoveries: the guitar and alcohol. Four years later, Mr. Cash was singing in Memphis with his longtime backing band, the Tennessee Two — bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Lou Perkins.

The late Sam Phillips, the legendary Sun Records producer who shepherded Elvis Presley to fame, convinced Mr. Cash — who referred to himself simply as John in those days — to give pop music a try, and to add a youthful-sounding “y” to his first name.

Part of Sun’s “Million-Dollar Quartet” — including Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — Mr. Cash’s collaboration with Mr. Phillips produced four No. 1 country singles, including “I Walk the Line.”

Mr. Cash charted a total of 137 songs on Billboard’s singles tabulation between 1955 and 2003 with hits such as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

He sold more than 50 million records and nabbed 11 Grammy Awards, including one this year for the song “Give My Love to Rose” in the best male country vocal category.

He is one of two persons to be inducted into both the Country Music and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fames. The other was Elvis Presley.

His music, however, was never easily pigeonholed into the idioms of traditional country music, incorporating rockabilly, mariachi, gospel and blues into his sound.

“There’s never been a voice that had that kind of power, that kind of voice-of-God quality to it,” said the singer Emmylou Harris.

Always clad in black, Mr. Cash came to exemplify the hard-living impetuosity — a Rolling Stone magazine photograph of the singer angrily extending his middle finger is one of his most indelible images — associated with the culture of rock music.

Owing to a relentless touring schedule, Mr. Cash nursed an addiction to amphetamines in the late ‘50s. By the early ‘60s, his diet of drugs and alcohol began taking its toll on his work; brushes with the law soon followed.

Mr. Cash was convicted of starting a forest fire in 1964; a year later, he was arrested for carrying scores of illegally purchased pills into Texas from Mexico. At a drug-addled rehearsal for the country music TV revue “Grand Ole Opry,” Mr. Cash dragged a malfunctioning microphone stand across the stage’s footlights, busting many of them — a stunt that got him booted off the show for good.

Politically outspoken but eclectic, Mr. Cash sometimes seemed to be in synch with the social reform impulses of the ‘60s without ever alienating his more traditional and overtly patriotic base in the white South during the Vietnam War years. He supported the expansion of civil rights and integration for blacks; at the same time, he performed at the Nixon White House and became a close friend of politically conservative evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham.

His somber-clothes sense, he said in his 1971 song “Man in Black,” was a token of his sympathy for the world’s downtrodden. A voice of the working class, his visceral feelings of solidarity with the outcasts of society led him to champion prison reform and to give famous live performances for inmates at Folsom and San Quentin prisons.

Mr. Cash “took the social consciousness of folk music, the gravity and humor of country music and the rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll, and told all us young guys that not only was it all right to tear up those lines and boundaries, but it was important,” said Bruce Springsteen at a 1999 tribute concert.

“His fierce independence and free spirit, balanced with his love of family, children and his fellow man, will stand as a shining example of the best of what it means to be human,” said singer-actor Kris Kristofferson in a memorial statement released yesterday.

Along with Mr. Kristofferson, the late Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Mr. Cash formed the long-running supergroup, the Highwaymen, who toured and recorded in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Chronic health problems forced Mr. Cash to give up touring in 1997.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, he published two autobiographies and hosted his own TV show for ABC (nabbing a rare guest appearance from the media-shy Bob Dylan in 1969).

Paying tribute to his mother, Carrie Rivers Cash, Mr. Cash once said, “My mother told me to keep on singing, and that kept me working through the cotton field.”

“She said, ‘God has his hand on you. You’ll be singing for the world some day.’”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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