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God Bless Johnny Cash: A Salute to the Man in Black

​Like Elvis, Johnny Cash has left the building. Happily, though, the memories still linger by the back door. 

Born February 26, 1932, the "Man in Black" -- a nickname given him not only because of his garb but due to his dour demeanor -- would have been 80 years old today had he not passed on September 12, 2003. His beloved wife, June, died just over five months after. 

Cash was, of course, not only one of the greatest country singers of all time -- a standing that puts him on the same platform as Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, George Jones, and the genre's other iconic innovators -- but an indelible presence across the entire musical divide as well. 

His gruff, resonant vocals and ready acceptance of new ideas, new artists, and, most important, the common man helped ensure that his influence would continue for generations to come. That doesn't even include his incredible musical catalog. Songs such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson," Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," "Hey Porter," and "Get Rhythm" are now considered universal standards, embraced by artists of all genres. 

It's little wonder that when Bob Dylan opted to establish himself as a country troubadour with the album Nashville Skyline, he chose Johnny Cash to sing with him on one of its songs. Or that when Cash launched his weekly television show, he picked Dylan as a guest, binding two generations of music lovers in the process. Or that his final series of albums, which he aptly dubbed the American Recordings series, he chose to have producer Rick Rubin at the helm, a decision that was not only celebrated by the alternative-rock crowd but that also provided further proof that he was again able to adapt with age. 

Cash never had to demand relevance. It came to him naturally. And while he prided himself on being called an "Outlaw," a name taken by the ad hoc supergroup that also included pals Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, he was never far from the mainstream. 

Consequently, it's fitting that on the occasion of what would have been his 80th birthday, several celebrations are scheduled to mark the auspicious milestone. His son John Carter Cash's book House of Cash: The Life, Legacy and Archives of the Man in Black was released; daughter Rosanne Cash's book of memoirs, Composed, and her recent album of her father's songs, The List, also came out. Hollywood gave us the much-acclaimed biopic I Walk the Line

Then there are the various tribute albums, reissues, and a substantial series of archival titles issued by Sony/Legacy titled The Johnny Cash Bootleg Series. This coming April, the fourth volume in the series, Bootleg, Vol. 4: The Soul of Truth -- a look back at the songs of faith Cash recorded in the '70s and '80s -- will also arrive. 

In addition, to mark this particularly important birthday, the Cash family plans to convene today at Cash's boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, to break ground on the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home project, an initiative that's intended to celebrate the rebuilding of the house where Cash grew up as well as his artistic legacy itself. 

The restoration project will include several other buildings in the town as a means of breathing life into a place where Cash first sowed his musical roots. Last August, the Cash family initiated the Johnny Cash Music Festival to raise funds for the effort. They drew participation from John Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and other artists influenced by his music. 

Finally, another significant highlight of this yearlong birthday celebration will be the summer opening of the new Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville. The formal launch is scheduled to take place today. The museum, which will eventually encompass 18,000 square feet of memorabilia, interactive exhibits, and a 250-seat auditorium, is expected to draw 150,000 people in its first year alone. 

In addition to the other displays, a portion of the brick wall from Cash's Hendersonville home, which burned down after Cash's death, will be on display. It was made possible due to a donation from Bee Gee Barry Gibb, who owned the property for a short time before it was destroyed. 

How fitting that a man who faced death with such dignity has been assured of a celebration that enables his legacy to live on.

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Lee Zimmerman

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