From the cotton fields of Arkansas to his spiritual home on the banks of Old Hickory Lake along the outskirts of Nashville via New York, Memphis and all the roads and motels between, Johnny Cash retained a steadfast individuality, an admiral sense of morality and a candor that ran deeply through his music and personal life. Out Among the Stars, available this week, is a collection of Cash’s previously unreleased material recorded during the mid 1980s under the guidance of acclaimed producer Billy Sherrill at Columbia Records. This latest collection will undoubtedly deliver his trademark blend of baritone, rebellion and humility.

johnny cash among the stars album cover

Here are some of the great lessons taught by Johnny Cash. A great rebel, a great spokesman:

Lesson: The best protests are enduring and sincere.

Song: “Man in Black”

Lyric: Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.

Cash’s first public appearance was in a North Memphis church alongside Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. None of the trio owned a suit (uniform for a band at the time) so they wore simple blue jeans and black shirts. The gig went well, a superstition was born. The superstition quickly became a tradition and that tradition, with the release of 1971s Man in Black, gradually became one of Rock music’s most distinct and enduring protests.

Throughout his career, Cash wore black for “the poor and beaten down, for the prisoner who was a victim of the times, for those who never read the words that Jesus said, for the sick and lonely old, for the reckless, for the lives that could have been, for the thousands who have died believing God was on their side…”

It’s the ultimate, all encompassing protest — against war, against social injustice, against hierarchy, against the demented and withered hand of the law, against avaricious government and a regressive penal system… The list goes on. As The Man in Black himself said “It’s a symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.”

In an age when rock music appears to have lost its political voice, when the downtrodden need it most, one could do a lot worse than take lead from Cash’s dignified refusal to accept defeat and write a song in defiance of those in power who prioritize the wealth of few over the welfare of many. 

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