Cash wasn't usually thought of as a folk singer, but in terms of updating traditional material and writing new songs in the same vein, he was the closest thing to an authentic troubadour to emerge since the end of World War II. "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" (1958), about a headstrong young man who comes to a violent end after ignoring his mother's advice, was based on an Irish ballad that found its way to the American South. "Five Feet High and Rising" (1959), about the devastation caused by a 1937 flood of the Mississippi, was entirely his own creation. Anyone listening to these two songs and unfamiliar with their sources would be hard put to guess which was traditional and which original. Possibly at the instigation of Seeger and Bob Dylan, Cash performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. It was Freedom Summer, and the festival was a recruiting ground for the voter-registration movement and for leftist causes in general. The presence of a country-music star must have raised a few eyebrows. But the organizers must have recognized that Cash virtually defined folk music in his relationship to his primary audience—a country-music audience that embraced him because his music reflected their experience, even if his political beliefs occasionally differed from theirs.
Cash was one of the original Sun rockabillies, along with Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the forgotten Warren Smith and Billy Lee Riley—like him, southerners who had grown up aspiring to country stardom before anyone had ever heard of rock-and-roll. Yet Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty smiled on Cash as one of their own: they heard something close to rock-and-roll in his music, and recognized it for sure in his independent stance. After country radio turned its back on his generation in the 1990s, in favor of young beefcake cowpokes like Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, Cash attracted the attention of MTV by recording his own versions of songs by groups such as Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails for Rick Rubin, a producer identified with rap and heavy metal.
For all that, whenever Cash made the Top 40 (as he did with some regularity for twenty years, beginning in 1956 with "I Walk the Line"), it was always with what sounded like a country song, not one that conformed to current pop trends. Country-music record buyers didn't extend him the same loyalty, nor did the Nashville power brokers. Cash was a posthumous winner in three categories at last year's Country Music Association Awards. American IV: The Man Comes Around, his fourth album for Rubin and the last to be released before his death, was named Album of the Year, and his version of "Hurt"—a song written by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails—won for Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year. But there was an air of atonement to these awards, which were given out in November, less than two months after Cash's death. Not counting his election to the association's Hall of Fame, in 1980 (the equivalent of being kicked upstairs), he hadn't received a CMA award since 1969. The association had completely ignored American Recordings, his first album for Rubin and arguably his greatest work, even though it won a Grammy as the best contemporary folk recording of 1994. Cash was in any case never part of the country-music establishment, and at the height of his celebrity, in the early 1970s, he towered above it.
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Cash wasn't an outlaw—just an outsider, in a way that had nothing to do with stage image. He even seemed a little out of place in the Highwaymen, the country-music supergroup he started recording with in the 1980s, which also featured the shaggy Nashville "outlaws" Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. His singing and the way he carried himself did influence a number of country singers of his generation and slightly younger, most notably Merle Haggard and Kristofferson. But among today's younger country performers, the only ones who sound like they've listened much to Cash are somehow related to him: his daughter Rosanne Cash, his stepdaughter Carlene Carter, and his former sons-in-law Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell. Where his influence is still widespread is in the work of performers ignored by country stations but likely to be on the playlists of classic-rock stations and public radio's World Café—such younger singer-songwriters as Steve Earle and Billy Bragg, along with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.