The Man in Black, still shining brightly
Johnny Cash's 70th birthday brings tributes, reissues
(CNN) -- The Man in Black has long since gone gray.
His face, aged by illness and time, has the deep lines and somber mien of an Old Testament prophet; for several years, he has struggled with autonomic neuropathy, a diabetes-related disorder that attacks the nervous system in much the same way that Parkinson's disease does. Johnny Cash used to perform more than 200 times a year. No longer; now, he rarely appears in public at all, though he hopes to perform again this year.
But there's no silencing Cash's voice, no denying its rugged, earthy power. It is a voice of truth. Listen to Johnny Cash sing "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die," and you believe he is a cold-blooded killer; listen to him sing "I fell into a burning ring of fire," and you believe he is a desperate lover; listen to him sing "I'm gonna join the family circle at the throne" and you believe he is a humble son.
John R. Cash, the sharecropper's boy from Kingsland, Arkansas, turns 70 on Tuesday. In a career spanning almost 50 years, he has sung with Elvis and Dylan, hosted his own TV show, played for presidents and prisoners. He is sui generis, yet appreciative of every tribute, every honor.
To celebrate his 70th birthday, his record label for 28 years, Columbia, is releasing remastered versions of his albums all year long on its Legacy label, along with a two-CD greatest hits collection, "The Essential Johnny Cash." The collection features birthday greetings from people ranging from Paul McCartney to Al Gore, all of whom pay tribute to a talent that has never gone out of style.
"He's delighted he's gotten the response he has received for the last 40 years," says Lou Robin, Cash's longtime manager. "He's tried to stay contemporary in his thinking."
Cash was early to realize the blurred lines between country, folk and rock 'n' roll. He was one of Sun Records' early signings, and laid down several groundbreaking sides with the Memphis, Tennessee, label, including "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "I Walk the Line."
Later, refusing to be pigeonholed, he recorded songs by Bob Dylan, leading to a duet on Dylan's 1969 "Nashville Skyline" album. On his television show, which ran from 1969 to 1971, he went well beyond Nashville, providing appearances for such divergent artists as Ray Charles and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt.
His record sales have ebbed and flowed, from chart-topping success in the early '60s with hits including "Ring of Fire" and "Understand Your Man," to a valley when he couldn't buy a hit, to a late-'60s/early-'70s resurgence and decline in the '80s.
But despite his ups and downs, he's always had his fans -- many from the music industry. Cash has "that hip rock 'n' roll/country image that we're all shooting for," Ronnie Dunn of the country duo Brooks & Dunn told The Associated Press. "Even rock stars are chasing it."
His determination to go his own way has been particularly strong in the last decade, which saw Cash leave Mercury, his label after Columbia, for Rick Rubin's American label in 1992. Nashville had changed into a pop factory, leaving little room for rough-hewn legends like Cash. Rubin, known for his production work with the Beastie Boys and Tom Petty, decided to let Cash be Cash -- no "countrypolitan" strings, no overly sweetened backup singers, no bull.
"When I signed with Rick's label about 10 years ago, I asked him what he would do with me that nobody else had done," Cash told The New York Times. "He said, 'I would like for you to sit in front of a microphone and sing every song you want to record.'
"I said, 'Whoa, that's a tall order. There are lots of songs over the years that I've wanted to do.' He said, 'Well, those are the ones that I want to hear.' "
So Cash's last three albums -- "American Recordings," "Unchained" and "American III: Solitary Man" -- have been filled with songs by Tom Petty, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Nick Lowe (his former stepson-in-law), along with old chestnuts and his own work.
"It's fun to expand horizons beyond the scope that Nashville had," says Robin. "There's more to it than formula."
'They'll throw it right back at you'
Cash has lived a well-documented hard life. In the '60s, he became addicted to drugs and was arrested for attempting to smuggle amphetamines into the United States from Mexico. In 1965, he destroyed the footlights of the Grand Ole Opry after the establishment refused to let him perform. He became a born-again Christian with his marriage to June Carter in 1968, but health problems have dogged him as he's grown older.
Cash is in better shape these days, says Robin, and is compiling songs for the tentatively titled "American IV."
"He's put down several songs and is scheduled to finish in April," he says. "I've heard some of the tracks. There's some wonderful stuff."
Cash recently sang in public for the first time in years, performing "The Ballad of Annie Palmer" at a banquet in Jamaica for the Horatio Alger Awards Committee, The Associated Press reported.
"It felt really good," Cash told the AP. He hopes his health continues to improve to the point where he can perform again, even if only sporadically.
Cash has suffered from pneumonia more than once in the last few years. The disease almost killed him, but he told the AP he's much improved. "I think -- I hope and pray -- that all the pneumonia is behind me," Cash said. "It almost devastated me. Now I'm mending, and gaining strength every day and feeling good."
Cash hopes his new album will be greeted with enthusiasm, says Robin. But if not, well, he did his best.
"He's always had the integrity to believe in the music he writes and records," says Robin. "If people accept it, he's thrilled. If not, as he says, 'They'll throw it right back at you.' "
Cash will spend his 70th in Jamaica, where he's relaxing away from the Nashville winter. Robin says it will be a quiet celebration with family.
"He's going to enjoy the moment," he says.
Something that anyone who's ever listened to Johnny Cash can appreciate.
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