Johnny Cash, who rose from the Depression-Era cotton fields of rural Arkansas to leave a deep imprint on the American music scene, died on this day in history, Sept. 12, 2003. He was 71 years old.
“Cash was an original: a rebellious, unrelentingly entertaining and imposing presence,” Rolling Stone wrote in a 2016 tribute to the performer.
Artists across the world mourned the loss.
“His influence spread over many generations of different people. I loved him as a singer and a writer,” Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger reportedly said shortly after Cash’s death, calling his passing “a great loss to the music community.”
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Cash suffered numerous health problems late in life, which by the 1990s severely limited his ability to perform live.
He died of complications of diabetes at Nashville Baptist Hospital, according to official records. His health condition was made worse by years spent on the road and battling addiction.
“The problems were seen as payback by some, including Kris Kristofferson, for the years of abuse that Cash had subjected his body to with drugs and alcohol at various stages throughout his life,” wrote the music site Spinditty.
But music fans and family members have long speculated that Cash’s actual cause of death was a broken heart.
His wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, died four months before him following complications from heart surgery.
Cash, confined to a wheelchair, sat by his wife’s bedside as she lay in a coma on life support, author Steve Turner wrote in the 2004 book, “The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend.”
Cash talked to his wife, sang songs and read her psalms.
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“He begged her not to leave him,” Turner wrote, noting that Cash’s health took a sudden turn for the worse following her death.
Their legendary and tempestuous love affair began in 1950 when starstruck teenager J.R. Cash met the performer from the celebrated Carter country music family backstage after a performance at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“He saw June and he fell in love. He thought she was amazing, the bee’s knees,” Lisa Errington, assistant manager of museum and tours for Ryman Auditorium, recently told Fox News Digital in an interview at the auditorium.
Their story was brought to the silver screen in the 2005 Hollywood hit “Walk the Line” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
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Cash’s hit-making career lasted nearly half a century and crossed with uncanny easy into multiple genres while capturing a shockingly diverse range of fan bases.
He died a member of the Rock & Roll, Country Music, Nashville Songwriters and Memphis Music Halls of Fame.
In 2001, Cash was honored with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award for artistic excellence.
Even today, 19 years after his death, it’s not uncommon to hear Cash’s music seeping out of both rural Tennessee honky-tonks and Brooklyn hipster craft cocktail bars.
Cash placed an incredible 134 singles on the Billboard charts, including at least two chart hits per year for 38 consecutive years, according to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville.
His first, “Cry, Cry, Cry” was released in 1955; his last, a haunting remake of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, stunned the music world in 2002, the year before he died.
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Cash’s haunting version of the song was accompanied by powerful video that showed the cragged, old and sickly singer against the backdrop of his Tennessee farmhouse and youthful career.
It proved an intensely emotional coda to an incredible career and achieved both critical and commercial success in the last months of Cash’s life.
“Hurt” won Country Music Association Video of the Year and Single of the Year, American Music Awards Song of the Year and the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Video.
“Wow, (I felt like) I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore,” songwriter Trent Reznor said upon seeing the video of Cash’s version of “Hurt.”