This section includes the years from 1958 until 1967.
– Career take-off
– Success on good and bad
– Drinking and drugs
– Still made hits
– Ring of Fire success
– Outlaw image
– Started forest fire
– Arrested for drugs
– Arrested for picking flowers
– Concept albums
– Peak of drug abuse
– Cancelled perfomances
– Divorce from Vivian
Johnny Cash signed with Columbia in 1958. This was a very lucrative contact. And with Coulmbia Johnny Cash’s career took off!
In the early ‘60s, Cash sold records like never before. His tours were popular and singles made it to the top of the charts. But the success has a different side too. Like Cash said himself: “Success is having to worry about every damn thing in the world, except mony.”
With success came heavy drinking and addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates. And it didn’t help when Cash shared an apartment with Waylon Jennings for a brief time. Jennings was very addicted to amphetamines, and that didn’t do any good for any of them. Cash would often hide his pills, then forget where he put them, and blame Waylon for stealing them. A rough period for mister Cash.
Cash toured a lot, and the pills were his way of staying awake through the tour. His “uppers” as he said. Friends would make jokes about his nervousness and erratic behaviour, and ignored them as signs of a worsening addiction.
Still making hits
In many ways cash was losing control of his life, but his creativity still kept delivering hits. In 1963 he released the major crossover hit “Ring of Fire”. The song was written by June Carter (who married John in 1968), and Merle Kilgore. While you’d think it would be referring to the drinking game “ring of fire”, it is really about falling in love. The song reached #1 on the Country Charts and made it to the top 20 (#17) at the Singles charts.
Outlaw image and forrest fire
Cash was clearly infected with his drug abuse, and sometimes he would speak of it. But, in a bemused way. In June 1965, his truck caught fire due to a defect exhaust. That alone sounds not so serious and dangerous, but the fact that it triggered a forest fire is much more interesting. The fire burnt down several hundred acres in Los Padres National Forest in Californa. Cash had to answer for himself in court. And when the judge asked him why he did it, Cash responded in his characteristical outlaw style of the time: “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead so you can’t question it”.
The result of the fire: 508 destroyd acres of forest, burnt the foliage of three mountains and 49 endagered condors (of 53) were killed. Not bad.. Now, how did Cash respond to that? “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzard!” The federal government on their side didn’t like Cash’s style and sued him and was awarded $125,127,-. Johnny Cash managed to settle the case and ended up paying $82,001. Johnny Cash says in the autobiography that he is the only one who has been sued by the government for starting a forest fire.
Despite of living out his outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. But he got a couple of overnighters. The most famous run-in with law enforcement is beyond doubt the El Paso incident. While on a tour in 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected that he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but it was in fact prescription narcotics and amphetamines that he had hidden in his guitar case. Because it was perscription drugs and not illegal, he just spent one night without further sentence.
My favourite arrest (that sounds good) must be the overnighter he got in Starkville Mississippi. He was caught in the act of picking flowers! No crime in that of course, but the fact that he trespassed into private property late at night to find those flowers is. This found place at May 11 in 1965, and Cash spoke of the incident in the concert at San Quentin. In addition to just talking about it, he actually made a song called “Starkville City Jail”. It’s highly recommended to check out both the song and the speech at San Quentin.
In the mid ‘60s Cash released a number of concept albums. These included “Sings The Ballads of The True West” (1965) and “Bitter Tears” (1964). The first one were an experimental double record. Cash mixed authentic frontier songs with his own spoken narration. The latter one was an album that were to highlight the plight of the native americans (whom Johnny Cash thought he descended from).
Abuse peak and divorce
In the same period, his drug abuse were at his worst. This shined through both in career and family life. The drug abuse became at last too much for the marriage to carry, and John went through the big D from his first wife in 1966.
When he was at the peak of his drug abuse it affected his performance on stage, and he had to cancel a number of performances in this period.