His music style is hard to describe. Is it country ? Rockabilly, hillbilly or even rock and roll ? Johnny Cash’s aura certainly goes beyond any category. Cash and Elvis Presley used to rule the Billboard’s charts in the fifties and sixties. Nevertheless, it seems like Presley entered « pop culture » more than Cash. Country music does not export that well in other countries. Therefore Johnny Cash remains a pure American Icon.
Johnny Cash is an American singer and guitarist. He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, in 1932. He died in 2003. He is mostly remembered for being a country and rock and roll musician and having a very distinctive bass voice. His early life was the usual life of an American man at that time. He was raised with gospel music, did his military service and married when he was young.
What is striking about Johnny Cash is how he had several images, periods throughout his career. For example, he was often seen as an outlaw. He has often been arrested for multiple reasons, the main one being drugs. However, he has never served a real sentence. Afterward he began to do concerts in prisons, in san Quentin. Later, he became an activist for the native Americans rights. He also stood against the Vietnam War. Johnny Cash’s last years have been quite memorable and very successful. He came back after many years of decline. Here again, he appeared even more as an icon, rising from the ashes. After his death, a movie called Walk the Line (2005) depicts his early life. He was at the peak of his “iconification”.
However, how does he represent America and American people ? Why is he such an icon ? I think that Johnny Cash represents America in all its complexity, its contradictions. As it has been previously said, Johnny Cash has been through many periods throughout his life. Therefore his contradictions are abundant. Cash embodied the American cowboy but still defended the right of native Americans. (He even made a whole album based on this concept) He used to be considered as an outlaw, was in favor of prison reform, did concerts in prisons too. But later in his life, he rediscovered his faith. He even hosted a TV show. Cash really embodies Americans contradictions between freedom and patriotism, individual rights and nationalism. Though he was a sinner, he sang a song about how God cut the sinners down. He loved his country but could be seen with a tattered American flag.
I think that every American can find something he likes about cash. Every American can somehow identify himself with Johnny Cash. That’s why he is an icon because he is America in all its complexity.
As a french, when I think about Johnny Cash, I have these images of the wild west that come to my mind. The American frontier. Cash is almost an ultimate caricature of the American man. He embodied the multiple facets of the American culture. In a way, he is more an American icon than Elvis Presley because Elvis has become a universal popular icon. Many people outside America has appropriate Presley. Johnny Cash still remains a pure American icon. The imagery of his songs recalls the American mythology.
– Stephen Miller, Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon
– Leigh H. Edwards, Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity