When it comes to iconic American musicians, you would be hard-pressed to find one as iconic as Johnny Cash. Born John R. Cash in 1932, this native of Kingsland, Arkansas, would go on to become one of the biggest music stars to ever live. But what happened to him to the end of his career, and why did he die at the still relatively young age of 71?
His story is one of several rises and falls and can serve as a warning about addiction. He may have been a fantastic musician, but he had more than his fair share of demons to contend with. That would become a recurring theme throughout his life and was a battle he perhaps never wholly won.
His Health Decline and Eventual Death
The year 1997 was a turning point for cash, and his health would start to suffer. This was when he was apparently diagnosed with a disease called Shy Drager Syndrome. This disease is closely related to Parkinson’s, which Cash wrongly announced on stage that he had.
But this was not the first time he had suffered from a health perspective. He had already undergone several operations for his heart—including a double bypass—as well as his jaw and knees.
I also used the word “apparently” when discussing Shy Drager Syndrome. This is because it’s only a possible interpretation of the disease that plagued him when, honestly, it was linked to his diabetes.
Some even argue he suffered from autonomic neuropathy as a by-product of his diabetic condition. No matter what it was, his various ailments, which included chronic nerve damage to his jaw, did severely inhibit his ability to perform. Ultimately, it led to him having to cease touring, but he didn’t stop making music. Instead, he would turn to his recording studio to continue to produce music.
But he had always fought against his health for most of his life. Even having pneumonia would result in a series of chest infections in his later years, something that would always end up stopping him in his tracks with his recordings.
Ultimately, his poor health would get the better of him.
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What Happened in 2003?
With his health still poor, Cash would have to contend with the most significant loss of his life in 2003 when his wife died. She went into hospital for a heart operation and never returned.
This left the singer broken at a time when his own health was not at its best. Many believed it helped to contribute to the fast decline in his own health as the glue that held him together was no longer there.
Also, it was completely unexpected. Yes, she was older than him by a couple of years, but it was widely accepted she would outlive Cash simply because her health was so much better. Sadly for the musician, it would not work out that way.
But his wife had already ordered him that if anything happened to her, he was to carry on producing music. He did so just a week later with the production of five new songs. He intended to continue doing this, but it would not work out. Those would become the final tracks he would ever record.
By September of that year, he would see a further drop in his health. Ultimately, he would die on 12th September. The official cause? Complications caused by his diabetes. This happened a mere four months after the death of his wife.
He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memorial Gardens in Tennessee. Nobody expected them to die just a matter of months apart.
His Early Career
Cash first appeared in the music industry in the 50s after learning how to play the guitar when serving in the Air Force. He had been exposed to music as a child and loved songs from the rural south. That meant he spent a lot of his time listening to folk music and tracks that were more laments and talking about sorrow. Clearly, this resonated with him and would lead to it forming a crucial part of his own songs later on.
After serving four years in the Air Force, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee. A wise choice to make for any individual with an interest in making it in the music industry. There, he began performing in a group called The Tennessee Two, which would ultimately become the Tennessee Three.
It was his first attempt at producing music people would listen to, and it certainly gave him the bug to go and learn more. But his time with the group would only last for a while.
Signing with Sun Records
The year 1955 was big for Cash as his appearances with his Tennessee band ultimately led to an audition with the head of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. As a record label, this was the one you wanted to be signed by, and they snapped up Cash instantly.
It would prove to be a wise investment as by 1957, he was the biggest-selling country and western star in the United States. Songs such as Hey Porter and Cry! Cry! Cry! were primarily responsible for that almost instant success.
But initially, that success would not last.
He did switch from Sun Records to Columbia Records early on in his career. It appeared to be a sound idea as Sun Records had already lost Elvis Presley and were known to be throwing their weight behind other artists. Cash was not included in this push, but his initial success meant he was never short of suitors regarding a new record label.
Initial Decline and a Re-emergence
Even though he was flying high, Cash would risk seeing everything come crashing down around him, thanks to developing a drug addiction. This would become a recurring theme throughout his life, contributing to his popularity starting to wane in the 60s.
Who knows what would have happened to him if it was not for June Carter from the Carter Family, who was in a relationship with Cash after the two met in 1961. Her insistence that he seek treatment for his addiction would turn things around for him.
This was important. He would spiral into a severe addiction that even resulted in him setting fire to a vast area of forest in the Los Padres National Forest in 1965. He almost died due to that fire, but he struggled with addiction for several years after this incident.
After a few years of almost non-existence, he would then make what would turn out to be the most significant breakthrough in his career thanks to the 1967 album Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, which was a massive deal at the time. Actually, record executives felt it was the craziest idea and would not work. However, it turned out to be a stroke of genius and was followed by Johnny Cash At San Quentin in 1969.
He took this opportunity to highlight the living conditions in prisons and sought to try to reform them in some way. He also took it as a sign of social injustice, which also became important and would remain so for the rest of his life.
The late 60s and early 70s would be something of a high point for him. He was further helped by his self-titled TV show, which was certainly not like your usual variety show of the time. Instead, it would feature stars such as Bob Dylan, and the only surprise is the show only ran between 1969 and 1971.
But it wasn’t all rosy for Cash during the 70s, leading to more issues.
Addiction Rears its Head Again
Cash had really struggled with his addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates during the 60s. He claimed to have kicked his habit in 1968, but it never really left him.
Instead, he would make several trips to rehab in both the 70s and 80s, including a trip to the Betty Ford clinic. On each occasion, he would appear to get on top of his addiction, only to relapse several years later.
At times, it’s known his addiction was severe. Back in the 60s, he was stopped by a police officer and was found to be carrying hundreds of pills. However, he only spent a night in jail before a judge set him free with a warning to take control of his life.
The 80s, a Dwindling Career, And Then a Comeback
Just as he had experienced in the 60s, Cash saw another decline in popularity in the 80s. Even his legendary status as a musician appeared incapable of helping him pull through. His record sales reached an apparent all-time low, but it would not last for long.
By 1994, a change in record labels saw a resurgence in his popularity, and not in a way that most people would have expected.
This was thanks to signing to American Recordings, owned by Rick Rubin. Their primary focus with their record label was rap and metal music, so it hardly appeared to be the perfect label for a country star like Cash. However, skeptics would be proven wrong.
His first album, American Recordings was an acoustic set that caught the public’s attention. Once again, he was back, and he would release additional music via the label, including the 1996 album Unchained, which helped further increase his popularity.
He would continue to remain popular among fans, both old and new, for the next few years.
Awards and Achievements
Throughout his career, Cash won numerous awards, as you would expect for an individual with obvious talent. We are talking about a list of Grammy wins and a long line of awards from the Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music, and more.
He was also admitted to various halls of fame, even though several were after his death. These include the Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The list of awards and achievements is a sure sign of how influential he was as a musician both during his life and after.
Cash was a massive star, but he had to survive various personal highs and lows thanks to his drug addiction. He had to contend with multiple rises and falls in his popularity throughout his career, but ultimately, the quality of his music would shine through.
He is still viewed by many as one of the biggest and best country stars to have ever lived. Sadly, his health prevented him from doing more of what he loved best—making music. However, the legacy of “The Man In Black” lives on forever, even decades after his unfortunate passing.
Barry has worked as a freelance writer for over a decade and has developed an eye for detail when it comes to unearthing cool and interesting facts.
His love of music stems from his student days checking out up and coming bands playing in the darkest corners of bars and clubs in Edinburgh.
The love of uncovering something new also remains with him. With an appreciation for music that’s best described as eclectic, his musical tastes range from Eric Clapton to Eminem through to Snow Patrol and Incubus. The memories that music can bring back to the fore is something he tries to portray in his writing.
For him, the voyage of discovery and unearthing something new is what makes this task of writing for MusicGrotto.com so interesting.