This week in our series of truck driver songs, we revisit one of the true country masters – Johnny Cash. It’s hard to gauge where country music would be these days without Cash’s influence. Cash was one of the first well-known artists to put some real rock n’ roll swagger into the music. His trademark seemed to be two parts tough, one part tenderness and one part regret. His early work appealed to both the young and old, the traditional and the hip. He was instrumental in setting loose style points for rockabilly, outlaw country and even gospel.
Early on, Cash’s arrangements were pure and simple – just a bass, an electric guitar and the scruff bump of his acoustic backing his world-class bass-baritone voice. His honesty and devotion caught the attention and admiration of the now-legendary Memphis record producer Sam Phillips, who was single-handedly responsible for a sea change in the style of popular country in the 50s. Phillips’ work with Cash and music legends Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison at Sun Studios has left a legacy on popular music that few can match to this day.
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tour performances. He continued to get more erratic and emotionally troubled with each tour. In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have “tried every drug there was to try.”
Although in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. Yet his day to day life was filled with missteps and burning bridges.
Cash curtailed his use of drugs for several years in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and “just die”, when he passed out on the floor. He reported to be exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God’s presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth.
Cash continued his music career of ups and downs, slowly fading from the spotlight until another legendary record producer, Rick Rubin, proposed a project to Cash that he said would once again revitalize his musical legacy in the eye of the public. Due to his failing health and the seeming earnestness of Rubin, Johnny agreed, knowing that the record could very well be his last. Rubin and Cash began working on arrangements of popular music from the 80s and 90s for Cash to cover, alongside a few new originals Cash wrote himself at home with his wife June. The result was the smash hit “American Recordings.” In 1994 it peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Country Charts and earned Cash a Grammy.
On September 12, 2003, while hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville – Johnny Cash took his last breath, less than four months after his wife June died from heart disease. He was 71.
Today’s video is one of his mid-career favorites from the album “Ragged Old Flag” titled “All I Do Is Drive.” It’s an unabashed love shout to the truck drivers of America. Enjoy.