10 Iconic Moments From Johnny Cash’s Career

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Johnny Cash is an icon without borders—save just country music; Cash was a singular presence in music, period. Along his path to stardom, the Man in Black delivered many unforgettable—and at times infamous—moments.

From his performance at Folsom Prison to a surprise revival at Glastonbury, Cash’s decades long-career produced a number of unforgettable appearances that bolstered his perennial hits. Right up until the very end, Cash was a formidable force in music.

Below, we’re going through just 10 of the moments that made Cash the icon that he is today. Let’s dive in.

1. Intercepting the Death of Joseph Stalin

Before Cash was the Man in Black, he was a man in uniform. After enlisting at the age of 18, Cash served in the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the Air Force in Germany. While working to intercept morse code transmissions, he became the first American to hear about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

On top of the integral interception at the height of the cold war, his time in West Germany also inspired his first band, The Landsberg Barbarians—an homage to his temporary home. After four years, Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force to pursue his career in music.

2. Cash Records His First Tracks at Sun Records

Upon his discharge, Cash took advantage of the GI Bill to attend a radio announcing course in Memphis. While in Bluff City, Cash began venturing into the limelight with Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

He auditioned for Phillips with mostly gospel songs. The famed producer allegedly told a burgeoning Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Eventually, the pair found songs that would work for them both and Cash recorded his first tracks at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”

3. Cash Tours With The Carter Family

After releasing a few more country hits—notably “I Walk The Line”—and departing from Sun Records, Cash began touring with the Carter Family. At the time, the lineup of the band included Mother Maybelle’s daughters Anita, Helen, and his eventual wife, June.

June would later recall admiring Cash from afar during these early tours. By the end of the decade, the pair would be married and go on to release some of country’s most enduring duets—and it all started on that fateful tour.

4. Cash Records “Ring of Fire”

Soon after his career took off, Cash began to garner the reputation of an outlaw, given his long bout with alcohol and drug addiction.

Although in many ways he was spiraling out of control, Cash proved he could still deliver hits nonetheless. In 1963, his rendition of “Ring of Fire” became a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the top 20 on the pop charts.

Though the track was originally performed by June’s sister, Anita, the signature mariachi-inspired horn section was the brainchild of Cash. He said the now-classic arrangement came to him in a dream.

5. Cash and Carter Duet With “Jackson”

Of all the duets Cash and Carter put out, the one that remains the most iconic is “Jackson.” They play jilted lovers in the song with Cash fantasizing about getting away from home. Carter though doesn’t seem to mind too much, as she nonchalantly responds to Cash singing, Honey, I’m gonna snowball Jackson with See if I care. The playful tune is a classic in the country sphere and the duo’s charm is as enticing today as it was then.

6. Folsom Prison

In 1968, Johnny Cash made history by recording a live album inside California’s Folsom Prison. The album revitalized Cash’s career and it all started with Cash’s 1953 song “Folsom Prison Blues.” Written while Cash was still in Germany, the song became one of the first songs Cash recorded at Sun Records. It quickly became one of his signature tracks and contains one of the most iconic lines in country music: But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

After the song’s release, he began receiving letters from inmates around the country asking him to play. Though he played at a number of prisons throughout his career, it’s the Folsom recordings that take the crown. The album is full of candid moments from both the inmates and Cash, capturing the energy in the room amid a performance that would cement Cash in the annals of music history.

7. The Johnny Cash Show

The Johnny Cash Show was an institution during its 58-episode run from 1968 to 1971. It provided a national platform for both established artists and burgeoning acts. Filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the likes of Ray Charles, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton would all join Cash during the show’s stint. However, it was Bob Dylan’s duet with The Man in Black that would become the most poignant moment in the show’s history.

Originally released on Dylan’s sophomore album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the duo’s version of “Girl from the North Country” went on to be recorded for his ninth album—Nashville Skyline. The two icons often professed their mutual admiration for each other’s music, making the collaboration all the more special.

8. The Highwaymen

Cash teamed up with three other country music heavyweights in 1985—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson —to form the Highwaymen. The group recorded three major label albums between ’85 and ’95, and produced a number of country hits like “Highwayman” and “American Remains.”

9. Cash Performs at Glastonbury 1994

Cash marks his performance at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival in 1994 as one of the highlights of his career. Taking over the “Legends slot” at the festival, many younger fans had dismissed Cash as a still-viable artist by the time the ’90s rolled around. That misconception was quickly bashed when he took the stage in Somerset, England for a career-spanning set.

“I found acceptance and appreciation in different places,” Cash said in his 1997 autobiography. “At the Glastonbury Festival in England, I sat on my stool and played my songs for an audience of a hundred thousand people who really listened, and that night, I realized I’d come full circle, back to the bare bones of my music, pre-stardom, pre-electric, pre-Memphis.”

He added, “I could have been back in Dyes, singing with just Mama to hear me on the front porch under the clear night sky of Arkansas in the 1940s with the panthers screaming in the bush, and it seemed, finally and almost miraculously, that the audience enjoyed that feeling almost as much as I did.”

10. American Recordings

Another factor in the rebirth of Cash was the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings. Under Rubin’s keen eye, Cash recorded the entirety of the record in his living room accompanied only by his Martin Dreadnought guitar—one of many Cash played throughout his career. The album featured mostly covers of contemporary artists hand-picked by Rubin, but Cash’s singular voice shined through, making them his own.

Photo Courtesy of The John R Cash Trust / Shorefire Media

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