FROM THE PAST

Next Big Resurrected Legend: Johnny Cash

The Man in Black talks about stripping down and heading west to reignite his career (1994)

The noisy squishing of its hooves gives the llama away. The scraggly-looking beast — a holdover from a menagerie that once included buffalo, an ostrich, and an African wild boar — freezes guiltily in the mud of Johnny Cash's 175-acre estate, one lowering black eye fixed on the human interlopers. Visitors aren't exactly unwelcome on the stark, wind-chilled shores of Old Hickory Lake. But they have become unexpected.

A nearly 40-year career that has yielded 48 hit singles, seven Grammy Awards, more than 50 million album sales, and inductions into the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame has earned the 62-year-old singer this sprawling homestead 30 minutes north of Nashville, along with the mixed-blessing sobriquet ''living legend.'' But the home he shares with wife June Carter, 64, has always stood apart from the rhinestoned glory of Music City, U.S.A. In 1969, Cash sold more records than anyone in the world and led a country-music boom precisely because he shunned the dippy, spangled facade of traditional Nashville stars. A quarter century later, as Cash prepares to release his first album for bad-boy producer Rick Rubin's American Recordings (due April 26) and considers performing in this summer's Lollapalooza '94 tour, he's distanced himself again.

''I feel like an outsider in this town,'' Cash rumbles in his famed quavery basso, ''because they made me feel that way.''

''The Garth Brookses and Alan Jacksons and Vince Gills have really made life hard on older artists,'' admits Bob Moody, program director at Baltimore country station WPOC. ''Too many programmers automatically dismiss their work without even listening to it.''

When Cash signed with Mercury/Nashville (his third record label) in 1986, he'd placed at least two singles per year on Billboard's country chart for 33 consecutive years; over the five-year course of his next five albums (which sold a paltry 228,000 combined), he managed to chart only one — 1990's ''Going by the Book'' (No. 69). So when a 30-year-old L.A. mogul who looks like a refugee from ZZ Top — and whose best-known successes include such warning-label acts as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slayer — approached him in early 1993, Cash quickly bolted Music Row. ''Rick Rubin's track record really didn't have a lot to do with my decision,'' he explains. ''I liked the way he talked about how he'd like to sit me in front of a microphone with my guitar and let me sing what I wanted to sing — much like I did at Sun Records.''

He may be thinking of the first day of spring 1955, when J.R. Cash posed his initial threat to the Nashville community. A lackluster appliance salesman from the black-soil cotton fields of Dyess, Ark., Cash had finally wheedled an audition at producer Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis; the song he recorded that day, ''Hey Porter,'' became the B-side for Sun Record No. 221, ''Cry, Cry, Cry.'' That single gave Sun its first national country hit, and marked Johnny Cash's entrée into Phillips' Million-Dollar Quartet (along with fellow rockabilly upstarts Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley).

Cash's $2.41 royalty check didn't last nearly as long as the trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm of ''Cry.'' But by 1959, after a string of hits including ''Folsom Prison Blues'' and ''I Walk the Line,'' Cash had laid claim to both a lucrative new contract with Columbia Records and Johnny Carson's old house in Encino, Calif. He'd also begun the well-publicized descent into addiction that nearly undid him: At various points, the 6-foot-2-inch Cash weighed only 161 pounds, popped up to 100 Dexedrines per day, and was sued by the U.S. government in 1965 for accidentally burning 508 acres of national forest while under the influence (he settled for $80,000).

Cash's rock & roll antics — his entourage frequently trashed hotel rooms — tapped into the '60s mind-set. He went sober in 1967 (though as recently as 1992 he entered a hospital to combat addiction to painkillers), but that did nothing to stop the counterculture from embracing the ''Man in Black'' (after the title of his 1971 anti-Vietnam War song).

''He's rather a dark figure in some ways,'' says Cash's once-estranged daughter Rosanne, 38, a country success in her own right. (Cash has three other daughters from his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto, and a son and two stepdaughters, including country singer Carlene Carter, with June.) ''That's so obvious as to be a cliché: He's not been afraid to explore his dark self publicly.''

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