Johnny Cash needs no real introduction. A hero of rebel country, his long and meandering career is so fabled that it was made into the celebrated biopic Walk the Line in 2005. The antithesis to the traditional rhinestone wearing country acts of the 1950s and ’60s, Cash quickly cultivated a large following due to his unmistakable baritone voice and the number of incredible songs he had.
In many ways, this was country music for the future, and for the most part, it was devoid of all the cheesy signifiers that we all know the genre for. It was harder, darker and more introspective than anything fans of Hank Williams could have ever dreamed of, and this thrust Cash into the hearts of the younger generation who had been galvanised rock ‘n’ rollers such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
There’s a reason why Cash’s music is still so revered in contemporary times, and why many of the biggest country stars of his day have now faded into relative obscurity.
It’s not just because of his music that we love Johnny Cash, but because of his personality too. Even though he passed away in 2003, his humble, blue-collared personality colours his music, and duly, it remains one of the most recognisable in music history. He was a complex man, and this gives his music a tangible human essence. For this reason, he will continue to inspire countless budding musicians who were born long after the days when Cash and country were in supremacy.
Although Cash grappled with waning relevance at a couple of points over his career, there’s an explanation for why he was able to bounce back so defiantly and retain his place as an icon.
Cash was interested in contemporary music and genres outside of his own. Whether it be his love for Beck, Joni Mitchell or his decision to work with the producer Rick Rubin, Cash was no stranger to stepping out of his comfort zone, and this had a transformative effect on his career.
One of those he was a big fan of was Canadian troubadour Neil Young. We all remember that the pair once teamed up for ‘Little Drummer Boy’ in 1994. However, the partnership would be more than that. The best instance of their stars aligning came in 2003 on Cash’s posthumous boxset, Unearthed.
Cash covered Young’s timeless cut ‘Heart of Gold’ from 1972’s Harvest and his version gives the original an extra punch due to his trademark snarl and the weight of the emotion that came from the spectre of his impending death. The sadness is palpable, but it’s a brilliant rendition that gives the original a run for its money.
Be prepared to be blown away, and make sure you have the tissues at the ready. You’ll need them.
Listen to Johnny Cash cover Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ below.