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Music

The Last Great Rebel

Michael Christopher

Johnny Cash pushed insurgent separatism to the hilt. He cemented his iconoclastic status in 1965 when he showed up wearing all black and a scowl at the usually pastel and buoyant church of county music, the Grand Ole Opry.

By the late '50s, the American rebel was fading fast from the public consciousness. James Dean was dead, Marlon Brando had put his best work behind him, and Elvis Presley joined the army and came back a changed man. He was no longer the hip gyrating bad boy from Memphis, but rather the ideal catch for all the mother's daughters across the country. Jerry Lee Lewis on the other hand, became the reason why girls were kept under lock and key �- especially young ones, after he married his 13-year-old cousin. "The Killer" was surreptitiously blacklisted, leaving only one man to become the face of non-conformity.

Johnny Cash pushed insurgent separatism to the hilt. He cemented his iconoclastic status in 1965 when he showed up wearing all black and a scowl at the usually pastel and buoyant church of country music, the Grand Ole Opry. After stomping out the footlights, he was banned from the venue for life, which didn't matter in retrospect, since he never fit in with the fickle and staunchly conservative Nashville establishment anyway.

Cash bucked the system at every turn, never allowing himself to be pigeonholed, frustrating the music industry and critics alike, who constantly need to put a firm label onto something (hence the "rebel" tag of this article). Throughout his career, rambunctious country ditties gave way to swells of folksy storytelling, with a backbone always based in religion. Gospel music was Cash's first love, and through all of his tribulations, he remained foremost a God fearing man. His collaborations were legendary, from Bob Dylan to U2, and perhaps most notably The Highwaymen, which was a project with other just-outside-the-country-establishment likes of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings.

Achievements were many, recognitions were few, especially by the ever ignorant Nashville scene, who got another stomping from Cash, this time in a Billboard magazine full page ad where he flipped off the entire system's hypocrisy upon winning the "Best Country Album" Grammy in 1997 for Unchained. "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support," read the caption, with a photo of a young Cash sneering with his middle finger extended.

Cash didn't need Nashville though, as he experienced a career resurgence (one of many) from his partnership with uber producer Rick Rubin, who introduced the singer to the late '90s youth via covers of Danzig and Soundgarden songs. The two teamed up for four records, the most recent being The Man Comes Around, for which Cash made a video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". The monodical track fit the unsure and fragile Cash of today perfectly, while the accompanying visual is equally heartbreaking and breathtaking, as the gray-haired Cash shuffles about while inter-cut footage of his young self flashes on the screen.

Relevant as ever, even MTV recognized the legacy of Johnny Cash by dedicating a portion of their Video Music Awards last month to the singer. He garnered six award nominations for the "Hurt" video even though the channel rarely �- if ever, played it. In an unintended final act of defiance, Cash was battling a stomach condition and couldn't make the awards ceremony. His attendance would've been moot, other than to make MTV look like they finally got it, since the video only took home one award, for best cinematography, a category not even televised. Instead, the likes of Justin Timberlake and Missy Elliott beat out "Hurt".

The only thing that the music channel got right was letting artists of today acknowledge the influence of Cash on their music and lifestyles. From Bono to Snoop Dogg to Tom Morello, everyone gets what Johnny Cash was and represented. He was the darkness of the soul that lies in everyone. The darkness that gives in to temptation, but seeks redemption. The darkness that draws on the most personal feelings imaginable, and tells tales of life, death, murder, rebirth, love, praise, and religion; all of the things that normal folk shy away from when the pain becomes too much. Johnny Cash embraced it, and that's what made him stand out from the rest. He was real, and a rebel for it.

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