“Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the nice one. Cash causes all the trouble. They fight.” — Johnny Cash


It’s his birthday today.

Johnny Cash, singing “Man in Black” in Denmark:

Here he is on Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party, 1956 or so. Great guitar solo, too. He’s not just strumming that guitar. The guitar CHUGS along, with an irresistible beat. It’s almost percussion. This is what Keith Richards calls in his autobiography “the rhythm of the tracks,” and it’s present in every great recording of the era. To poor boys, trains were symbolic. They could get you OUT of where you were at. Somewhere ELSE. Freedom.


Tennessee Ernie Ford and Johnny Cash together. “Sing it pretty, Ern.” This particular kind of ease and grace and humor no longer exists (at least not in performance-style), it’s a lost energy, specific to another time and place, and it is all the more precious for that.

Here he is, in 1956, at a Sun Records Show, singing “I Walk the Line.”

In 1968, he gave his famed concert at Folsom Prison (one of the best concert recordings of all time). It shivers with a sense of danger, a sense of the tension in that room, in those men. The ROARS that greet him aren’t the polite roars of an appreciative audience. It’s something else.

Here he is, with wife, the legendary June Carter, singing “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1978.

I can’t get enough of this performance. I wrote an entire post about it. The “Class of 55” – Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis – pay tribute to Elvis Presley in 1977, after Elvis died. They sing “This Train” and it’s just too much. The belt buckles ALONE.

And now, fast-forward, to Cash’s absolutely devastating 2002 “cover” of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt”. Trent Reznor wrote the song about his drug addiction, and was reportedly blown away by Cash’s rendition. It can’t even be called a “cover.” It’s almost like … Trent wrote this FOR Cash to do (subconsciously). Gird your loins. This is overwhelmingly emotional.

He was authentic.



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29 Responses to “Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the nice one. Cash causes all the trouble. They fight.” — Johnny Cash

  1. Barb says:

    Thanks for the pictures and links, Shelia! That top one never fails to stop me in my tracks. A couple of years ago I took my sons to a showing of famous rock and roll photographs, and this one was in the exhibition, which started an uncomfortable-for-me conversation with my oldest. They knew how I felt about Johnny Cash.

    I saw him once in concert with my family, in the 70’s. Our father drove us six hours across the state to see it. The whole thing felt very much like a family revue–the warm up acts lasted about an hour and a half, as various members of his and June’s family performed. His daughters formed different groupings onstage, and members of the Carter family were there, along with the two surviving members of the Tennessee Three. I seem to recall Mother Maybelle–but that could be wishful memories. I do know that June came out at one point in character and did a Minnie Pearl-ish routine.

    Johnny, when he finally took the stage, well, it was the first time I’d ever seen someone famous in the flesh, so the whole thing has taken on an air of unreality for me. Most vividly, I remember him singing “Peace in the Valley” under a spotlight, with most of the stage dark.

    When it was over, Dad packed us up and drove us all the way back to Dillon.

  2. Dan says:

    //This particular kind of ease and grace and humor no longer exists (at least not in performance-style), it’s a lost energy, specific to another time and place, and it is all the more precious for that.//

    So much this. I feel the same way when look at clips of A-list performers, big stars like Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne, on a variety show like Dean Martin’s, doing what to our modern eyes are terribly cheesy skits – and they are completely committed to doing that act, delivering those lines – all in earnest, no irony at all. It kind of floors me each time I see it.

    • sheila says:

      Sorry, not sure how I missed these comments – I usually try to respond to all of them.

      So agree, Dan – cheesy, corny, no irony … you wonder how they can BEAR it – and yet they are so easy with it, they don’t compromise themselves, you don’t feel like they’re slumming or commenting on stuff with their behavior.

      It’s strange, but it’s so in the moment. You know?

      This type of thing pretty much pre-dates me, but I still miss it.

  3. Patsyann says:

    Is it okay to share another concert memory?

    Johnny Cash was the first big concert I ever attended, on August 20, 1983 (I had to look that up) in Anchorage. I was 14. I was so excited to see him but very meh about the other elements of the show. I wasn’t a fan of June’s voice and didn’t really know enough about the Carter Family to care. All I cared about was seeing The Man In Black, and when that spotlight came on, with him standing on the stage alone, and he said “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…” chills. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a better moment at a concert.

    I don’t remember a lot of the details but I know he did all the standards, everything the crowd wanted to hear, and it was wonderful (of course). But what really sticks with me is getting to the next portion of the concert, and June Carter Cash just taking over that stage. She was enthralling. She was lovely, gracious, and exceedingly funny; just absolutely full of life and charisma. I have been a little bit in love with her ever since. :)

    I think that concert went on for three hours, and it was one of the best concert experiences of my life. Maybe the best. If we go to see concerts or live shows at different times of our lives, we might be looking for different things, so the experiences I had seeing grunge bands in clubs were also wonderful, but that Johnny Cash concert was an absolute pinnacle of seeing a professional entertainer and musician at the top of his game.

    I think about that quite a bit, how a professional entertainer (vs. a pure musician who might not care about the “show” as much as just the music – and there’s room for that as well, don’t get me wrong) can just take hold of a crowd that might not even be there to see them. I remember seeing Mel Torme at Bumbershoot in Seattle in 1994 and I am pretty sure almost everyone in that crowd was holding seats for the Ramones who were going on later that night, but he owned that crowd. It was amazing.

    Anyway, that’s my share. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cash.

    • Michael Fahey says:

      Wow. That was a wild double bill: The Velvet Fog and The Ramones.

      • Patsyann says:

        Yeah, Bumbershoot is like that, heh. Full disclosure – my group and I didn’t end up seeing the Ramones that night, because we were young and didn’t appreciate the opportunity enough.

    • sheila says:

      Patsyann –

      What a beautiful memory, beautifully told!!

      I love how June Carter Cash enthralled you – and I got chills hearing about Mel Torme owning the Ramones crowd. Old-school entertainers – they knew how to do that like nobody’s business!

  4. My nephew as a 2 year old raced around the living room singing along with Johnny ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’. Now married with children, a 13 year old and an 11 year old, he has that top photo framed and on the wall in his home.

    • sheila says:

      hahaha the image of a toddler singing that line!!

      Guralnick’s biography of Sam Phillips is so good – and there’s so much Johnny Cash in it, of course. He was so so frustrated with Sam – and pissed off – because Sam became so obsessed with Jerry Lee Lewis and sort of abandoned Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash jumped ship (understandable – it was time).

      But there’s a great quote from Cash which I’m sure you know – he was writing that song and he wanted to think of literally the worst and most evil reason that one person could murder another – and that’s what he came up with.

      Hard to argue with his choice. It’s a chilling line.

      I love (fear) when he sing that song live in Folsom Prison and the whole audience erupts into ferocious cheers.

  5. gina in alabama says:

    Did you ever see Johnny Cash in the Columbo episode “Swan Song” (1974)? he OWNS that whole episode and it has some concert footage. He was believable, totally, as a gospel singer who arranges the death of his wife (Ida Lupino!).

    My folks were big Johnny Cash fans from the late 50s, and I grew up with his music in the house (til i got old enough to choose rock for myself).

  6. sheila says:

    There was a movie he did in the 80s about a man who was illiterate – and then decided to learn to read. Does anyone remember it? Actually, it was probably in the 70s. I’ll look it up – a TV movie. I remember seeing it on TV at the time. Ben Marley was in it – anyone who is an old-timer here will remember that name. I can’t remember much of it – maybe it’s on Youtube. But I do remember that he was lovely and honest in it.

    Ben told me that Johnny and his wife were two of the sweetest people he ever met – just beautiful and gracious and kind. Made a huge impression on him.

    • sheila says:

      Just looked it up. 1981. The Pride of Jesse Hallam.

      • sheila says:

        Oh my God and whaddya know: whole thing is on Youtube.


        Does anyone else remember that movie?

        • Dan says:

          I have a memory of the title and it being a big event on TV. I never saw it and I had no idea Cash was in it.

          • sheila says:

            In my memory, it is a sweet and honest down-home type of thing. No histrionics, just a kind of simplicity and transparency. A “message” movie about illiteracy but done respectfully and well.

        • Barb says:

          Yes, I do! I remember watching it with my folks. I’mean trying to remember details, though – wasn’the his teacher played by someone like Jane Alexander? Or maybe I think that because it was the sort of part she played. I might have to follow your link over to youtube. I remember Cash’so acting as similar in style to John Wayne – unadorned, staightforward, mythic. (It’s quite possible there’s a bit of hero worship mixed into my memories!)

          • Barb says:

            Oops, it was Brenda Vacarro. Huh. (Sorry for the typos above. My tablet auto correct seems to have a complete lack of compassion for contractions.)

          • sheila says:

            Oh my gosh, yes, Brenda Vacarro!! Sadly I only associate her with Tampax now (or maybe it was Kotex?) I love her voice.

            and yeah – I don’t think Johnny Cash could “fake it” if he tried. Even when he was just starting out – he had that confident totally grounded authenticity about him.

  7. mutecypher says:

    Back in 2017, a buddy and I were in Nashville. It was in the path of totality for the solar eclipse. If we had a Lear Jet, we would have flown to Nova Scotia with Carly Simon. We had a long road trip and it was near the end of our full itinerary. We stopped in at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. It was just great. I didn’t know that Johnny had been a radio operator for the Air Force in Germany in the early 50’s – intercepting Soviet Army transmissions. It made me think of Elvis wanting to be in the FBI. Or Shaquille O’Neal wanting to be a police officer. Cool guys wanting to be in law enforcement. His clothes were great, the clips from his TV show were great. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in Nashville.

    I love the later albums he made with Rick Rubin. His versions of Hurt (Trent Reznor said it was now Johnny’s song) , and TP’s I Won’t Back Down, U2’s One, the Beatle’s In My Life, Neil’s Heart of Gold, Springsteen’s Further On (Up the Road)… just amazing work. And his own wonderful stuff.

    Happy Birthday, Johnny.

    • sheila says:

      I definitely must get to Nashville – only driven through it – and that’s just not right!! I will go to that museum!

      I love Elder Statesman Cash too. I feel lucky that I was “around” when he was showing up all the time on TV – in TV movies – on talk shows, etc.

  8. سيما says:

    Johnny Cash, Man in Black, I love this song

  9. Joseph Clark says:

    I came to the Cash appreciation club very late, in 1995 or so. It had a lot to do with Rick Rubin and those American Recordings. The box set “Unearthed” is worthwhile if you love these sessions. I remember hearing an interview of Cash on the radio (maybe NPR) where the interviewer commented on Cash’s rendition of “Danny Boy”. Cash immediately deflected and said (I’m paraphrasing): “You know Elvis Presley did a beautiful version of Danny Boy”…and my memory trails off after that. It was nice of Cash to invoke Elvis’s connection to that song I thought. Beautiful tribute Shiela!

    PS~ That Columbo episode is a hoot!

    • sheila says:

      Oh that’s nice about him shouting out Elvis! They all did Danny boy back then – the be-all end-all version of Danny Boy – and probably the one that inspired Elvis – was Jackie Wilson’s. Wilson’s is truly otherworldly if you haven’t heard it. Elvis’ version is good but he didn’t do THAT with it.

      The song is great for people with a wide range in their voice – because you have to hit those high notes – “for I’ll be THEEEEERRE in sunshine or in shadow” – very difficult. You need the “pipes” (to quote the song).

      I don’t think I know “Unearthed” – I’ll check it out. The YouTube reactor community I follow has discovered Johnny Cash through the getway drug of “Hurt” – his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song. These YouTube kids have no idea it’s a cover – which makes the Nine Inch Nails fans crazy – but his performance is so personal it does SEEM like he wrote it. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hear Trent Reznor hear that cover. It must have blown his mind.

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