Riding With The Man in Black

Monday, September 12: 2 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
Johnny Cash (2/26/1932 - 9/12/2003)

With a genre-spanning catalog that straddles the country, folk and rockabilly canon, and more than 400 songs that tapped into a homespun narrative about the lives of coal miners, sharecroppers, Native Americans, prisoners, cowboys, renegades and family men, Johnny Cash – "the man in black" – is a country music legend and a voice beloved by millions. Cash's rugged sensibility has influenced generations: From his 1956 two-sided hit "So Doggone Lonesome"/"Folsom Prison Blues" (Number Four on the Billboard charts) to 1969's "A Boy Named Sue" from Johnny Cash at San Quentin (Number Two on the charts); to his critically acclaimed American Recordings (produced by Rick Rubin and released in 1994) to 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around, featuring a stirring cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Cash, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, passed away a year after American IV's release, on September 12, 2003 at the age of 71.

Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932, amid the trying environment of the Great Depression. As a child, his humble beginnings found him working in the cotton fields of Dyess, Arkansas, where his family had moved when he was three years old. Eventually, Cash heeded the call to roam, laboring at an auto plant in Detroit, serving in the Air Force at a base in Germany and working as an appliance salesman in Memphis. Cash's life as a musician gained traction in Memphis as one of the first signees to Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1955. Cash became part of an elite club of rock and roll pioneers at Sun that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The four were collectively referred to as “the Million Dollar Quartet” after an impromptu gathering and jam session at the Sun recording studio on December 4, 1956. What Cash and his group, the Tennessee Two, brought to the “Sun Sound” was a spartan mix of guitar, standup bass and vocals that served as an early example of rockabilly. One early Sun recording, "I Walk The Line," was among his first Number One country hits and his first appearance on the national pop singles charts. 

Throughout his career, Cash's travels informed the inspired candor of his songwriting and quite literally took his music cross-country. For more than two decades, his JC Unit One touring bus transported he and his wife June, along with a cast of characters that came together for various tours, including the 1991 Highwayman Tour with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. "He spent so much time on the road, and he wanted to be comfortable," says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Assistant Curator Meredith E. Rutledge-Borger. "It was very important to him to be surrounded by the people he loved and a familiar surrounding, so that's why he put so much of himself and of his history into this bus." 

In this clip, Rutledge-Borger gives an all-access tour of the JC Unit One rig, exploring the unique compartments of the bus, including Cash and his wife June's separate quarters. She also shares a connection between the Civil War headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant and a table in Cash's compartment, an unusual kitchen appliance and a clandestine Jamaican export that found its way into the bus. 

WATCH: Inside Johnny Cash's Tour Bus

To learn more about Sam Phillips and Sun Studio, visit the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Architects of Rock exhibit. The interactive display features a re-creation of Sun Studio in Memphis, with original equipment from the legendary recording studio where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and others made their first recordings. It also includes Lewis’ piano. 



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