Cash Spoke for the Common Man

Andrew Clayman and Andrew Clayman

Even among legends, it’s the rare artist who becomes a genre unto himself. With a career spanning half a century and legions of fans from all walks of life, Johnny Cash was a legend in the manner usually reserved for tall tales.

He was more than a country music star or a rock n’ roll pioneer, more than a deep voice and a dark wardrobe. At his greatest, he was an icon. But at his truest, he was the Everyman; a voice for the underdogs and the heartbroken. Ironically, it was that connection to his audience that transformed Cash into the larger than life figure he was and will always be remembered as.

Of course, there are usually distinctions between the stuff of legend and the harsh facts of reality. Johnny Cash died one week ago at the age of 71, but as was the case through much of his life, his face showed the lines and scars of a much older man. Having struggled with drug abuse for years, Cash knew his share of pain and misfortune, and much of it found its way into his lyrics and performances over the years. In a roundabout way, his real life in the 1960’s began to reflect the outlaw persona he had developed on stage, as his addiction led him down a road of solitude and delinquent behavior.

Through it all, however, Cash never let his fame or his personal demons break his kinship with the blue-collar core of his audience. If anything, he used his real life pain to help him better express the plights of the downtrodden characters in his songs, from the regretful inmate in “Folsom Prison Blues” to the thick-skinned subject of “A Boy Named Sue.” Even after marrying fellow performer June Carter and turning his life around in 1968, Cash remembered the road he’d traveled, and his fans recognized that authenticity. They saw a man with an inherently good soul, singing about a world that is inherently flawed. The message resonated.

From an objective perspective, it’s hard to call Johnny Cash a musical genius. He wasn’t a great guitarist like Carl Perkins, a complex lyricist like Bob Dylan, or a dynamic vocalist like U2’s Bono. He did, however, collaborate with all three of those men, and all three held Cash in the highest regard. Their appreciation for Cash, like that of his millions of mourners, is as much about the humanity in his music as the timelessness of his songs. In an era when celebrities are increasingly set apart from the general public, Johnny Cash represented one of the last of a dying breed: a superstar for the common man. Through his musical legacy, he will continue to champion that cause.

12 Johnny Cash Songs That Everyone Should Hear

1) “I Walk the Line” — One of Cash’s first hits for Sun Records in 1956.

2) “Folsom Prison Blues” –Most famous version appears on 1968’s At Folsom Prison.

3) “I Still Miss Someone” –A tearjerker from The Fabulous Johnny Cash, 1958.

4) “A Boy Named Sue” –Written by Shel Silverstein, made a hit on 1969’s At San Quentin.

5) “Ring of Fire” — Co-written by his future wife, June Carter, in 1964.

6) “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” –His second single with Columbia, 1959.

7) “Hurt” –Powerful Nine Inch Nails cover from The Man Comes Around, 2002.

8) “The Man in Black” –Cash explains his attire in this 1971 hit song.

9) “Delia’s Gone” –Dark first single from 1994’s American Recordings.

10) “The Mercy Seat” –Cash leaves his mark on this Nick Cave song on Solitary Man, 2000.

11) “Girl From the North Country” –A duet with Bob Dylan on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, 1969.

12) “Rusty Cage” –A great cover of the Soundgarden song, from 1996’s Unchained.