Johnny Cash’s Rockabilly Path Led In a Different Direction

By Buster Fayte, Featured Author, Sad Man’s Tongue

When Elvis changed everything in 1954 with his recording of “That’s All  Right” he charted a definite path for rockabilly music. Many artists that came  after Elvis followed the trail he blazed and while they each brought their own  style–call them diversions from the path–they pretty much blazed ahead in the  same direction that Elvis pointed them. But not Johnny Cash. The man in black  may have started from the same point that Elvis did (they both got their start  on Memphis’ Sun Records at essentially the same time), but he didn’t waste any  time in proving that he wasn’t going to follow anyone’s path. Instead, Cash  blazed a new trail all his own.

Like Elvis, Johnny Cash began recording for Sun Records at the Memphis  Recording Service studios (both the studio and Sun Records were owned and run by  Sam Phillips) in 1954. Cash originally wanted to record Gospel music, but  Phillips recognized that (again like Elvis) he had something special in Johnny  Cash and steered him toward Rockabilly.

But Johnny, while he did record some marvelous rockabilly tunes, was always  drawn much more powerfully toward country than Elvis was. So, while Elvis set  off to invent rock and roll, Johnny headed off to redefine country music.

Johnny’s early Sun recordings are like Elvis’ in that they were sparsely  arranged numbers featuring just Cash and his acoustic guitar, a stand-up slap  bass played by Marshall Grant, and lead guitar played by Luther Perkins. But  there the similarities ended. Johnny’s recordings were far different than Elvis’  and those that followed Elvis. His rockabilly numbers featured the classically  understated lead guitar style that the dead-pan Perkins made famous. Perkins (no  relation to rockabilly’s Carl Perkins) didn’t strive to bring excitement to the  music the way most other rockabilly guitarists did. Instead he supplied a steady  alternating bass line that quickly became Cash’s signature sound.

Even in this early rockabilly, Cash never shook the country music that seemed  to course through his veins and it quickly became clear that his path was indeed  going to be different than that of the rockers. After his first few great  recordings (which met with varying degrees of success) Sun Records released what  has become his signature song, “I Walk the Line” backed with the snappy “Get  Rhythm” in early 1956. “I Walk the Line” sold over two million copies, peaked at  #1 on the Billboard charts and stayed on the charts for nearly an entire  year–an amazing accomplishment.

The Man in Black continued to record for Sun for a couple more years and his  successes continued, but again like Elvis, Cash became too big for the tiny Sun  label to hold and he signed with Columbia in 1958. The rest is country music  history.

So, while there were a lot of similarities in the early careers of Elvis  Presley and Johnny Cash, the differences became apparent very quickly. Elvis was  an all-out rocker and has inspired untold thousands of rock musicians. Johnny on  the other hand, played it more reserved and cool as he pursued his country and  gospel aspirations. It’s not too many people who would have been able to be  thrown into the position of being a contemporary of the King of rock and roll  and yet resist what must have been an enormous urge to follow in his successful  footsteps. But Johnny Cash was just that kind of man. In his understated way,  his presence was every bit as powerful as Elvis’ and so it simply had to be that  he would forge his own path in the music world. It’s just another chapter in the  amazing story that rockabilly wrote.

Buster Fayte is an author and rockabilly musician. He Blogs at “Buster Fayte’s Rockabilly Romp” where he writes about the passion he shares with millions of musicians and fans for rockabilly and oldies music. Buster has written several books including the “Complete Home Music Recording Start Kit”. He writes original songs, sings, and plays both guitar and bass.

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About Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague

We are a Bar and Bistro where old school meets the new school, dedicated to preserving the roots of rock and roll and it's modern adaptations as well as preserving the cultural identity of our neighborhood through our food, the the principles of the slow food movement. A little bit of rockabilly and retro combine with the kustom kulture of today, in an atmosphere devoid of Pretension.
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4 Responses to Johnny Cash’s Rockabilly Path Led In a Different Direction

  1. Pingback: Johnny Cash's Rockabilly Path Led In a Different Direction | Sad … | Sad Country Music

  2. Pingback: Johnny Cash’s Rockabilly Path Led In a Different Direction | À toute berzingue… |

  3. Pingback: Johnny Cash’s Rockabilly Path Led In a Different Direction | Rockabilly |

  4. Pingback: perhaps my FAV album EVER.. HAPPY JOHNNY CASH SUNDAY ! « just for the records ~another 365 project

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