June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash Perform Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" during the Bob Dylan anniversary concert at New York's Madison Square Garden on Friday Oct. 16, 1992. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)
Johnny Cash is an American legend. His greatest songs – such as "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," and "Folsom Prison Blues" – have had remarkable staying power, remaining well-known and relevant fifty years after they were first sung. In the decade before his death, he won the hearts of a new generation, the children and even grandchildren of his first fans, when he recorded deeply moving versions of their favorite bands' songs: "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails, "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode, and more.
Cash shone as a solo artist and songwriter, but he was also a favorite of his fellow musicians for collaborations and duets. On the day that would have been his 80th birthday, we look at a few of his greatest collaborations.
One of Cash's earliest all-star recordings was captured at the very beginning of his fame. In 1956, when Cash had released a few singles but no studio albums, he got to be part of a spontaneous jam session with three other legends: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. One day when they were all at the Sun recording studios at the same time, the quartet played and sang a few dozen songs, mostly country and gospel music, and a quick-thinking recording engineer left the tapes running to capture the whole session. The result was a joyful meeting of minds and talents.
In 1967, the year before he married June Carter, Johnny Cash recorded a duet with his future wife. The collaboration between two of country music's top stars electrified fans and won a Grammy. And it may have helped pave the way for Cash's public, onstage proposal to Carter in 1968. (The couple married just a week later.)
By the mid 1980s, Cash's new recordings weren't selling as well as they once had, though he still toured successfully. But he brought new life to his career with yet another collaboration, this time with three country stars who shared his outlaw image: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. The four dubbed themselves The Highwaymen and released three top-charting albums. Their first single, "Highwayman," was a smash hit with 20 weeks on the U.S. country charts, topping out at No. 1.
By the time Johnny Cash died in 2003, he had officially attained legendary status, thanks both to his solo work and his recordings with other greats. Today, on what would have been his 80th birthday, we salute the enduring power of his music.
Written by Linnea Crowther