With his rumbling baritone voice, spare, percussive guitar and imposing, black-clad presence, Johnny Cash was an iconic figure whose influence spans the 50s Rockabilly explosion, multimedia stardom in the 60s and a late-life comeback in the '90s. Cash remained a beloved star in the Country field for decades, despite his refusal to play by the genre's established rules. Meanwhile, the empathy for the underdog and passion for social justice that fueled much of his music aligned him with the Rock counterculture from the '60s onward.
The Arkansas-bred Cash first recorded in the 50s for the Sun label, where he achieved substantial success with such gritty hits as "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line" and "Guess Things Happen That Way." His star rose higher in the 60s after moving to the larger Columbia Records. At Columbia, Cash put his stamp on a wide variety of material, from introspective ballads to lighthearted novelty songs to dead-serious protest numbers, as well as releasing thematic LPs inspired by American history and the struggles of Native Americans.
After scoring such Country hits as "I Got Stripes," "Jackson," and "Ring of Fire" on Columbia, Cash's popularity reached a new peak in the late 60s and early 70s, even as he risked alienating his conservative Country audience by taking pro-hippie and anti-Vietnam War stances, and by consorting with various Rock performers.
In 1968, Cash released his most popular album, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, recorded during one of the prison concerts he regularly performed as a part of his advocacy for prison reform. Its 1969 followup, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, spawned Cash's biggest Pop crossover single, "A Boy Named Sue." The same year, Cash guested on Bob Dylan's album Nashville Skyline. Dylan reciprocated by making a rare TV appearance on the premiere episode of Cash's ABC primetime variety series The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971 and featured a wide range of musical guests from the Country, Rock and Folk worlds. During this period, Cash charted such country hits as "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Flesh and Blood" and "Man in Black," launched an acclaimed acting career and campaigned widely on behalf of prisoners' rights and Native American causes.
Cash's record sales declined in the late 70s and 80s, although he still had the occasional Country hit, and saw high-profile success as part of the outlaw supergroup the Highwaymen, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Cash experienced a substantial career revival in the 90s after signing with Rick Rubin's American label and recording a series of spare, soul-baring albums with Rubin producing. Those albums introduced Cash to a new, younger audience. Although beset by various health problems, Cash continued to record with Rubin until his death in September 2003, just four months after the passing of his wife and frequent duet partner June Carter Cash.