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KCET Movies: How Los Angeles Made Johnny Cash — After Nearly Destroying Him

Johnny Cash, the iconic outlaw of country and western music, may have come straight out of Arkansas, and he may have launched his career in Memphis, but in his story, unlike those of many other legends in his musical tradition, the Golden State also plays a major role. Even his casual fans understand that, many of them having come to his vast discography through his breakout late-1960s live albums “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin,” both recorded in the titular California correctional facilities. But as much as the Man in Black appreciated California’s remote spaces of desperation and isolation, he also spent, at different times, quite a few important years of his life in Los Angeles, a city that witnessed his rise into popular culture, his years of drug-addled chaos, and his professional rebirth.

Cash first moved to California in the summer of 1958, along with his first wife Vivian Liberto and their first three daughters (including Rosanne, who would grow up to become a famous singer-songwriter in her own right). Just 26 years old, he’d already scored hits with “I Walk the Line,” from which the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” would take its title, and “Folsom Prison Blues,” which would become his standard show-opener. He’d recorded them at Memphis’ Sun Studios, the musical launching pad of such stars in the rock and roll, country, and rockabilly sphere as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, though only Cash had the distinction of recording Sun’s first long-playing album. When an offer too good to refuse came in from Columbia Records, Cash took it and used the money to buy a house formerly owned by Johnny Carson on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino.

To Cash, as to so many of the new arrivals in the city, Los Angeles promised a different kind of freedom than he’d enjoyed elsewhere in America. He saw the city, according to “Johnny Cash: The Biography” author Michael Streissguth, as “musically and culturally a new world, far removed from Nashville’s parochialism and Memphis’ isolation. Though home to thriving jazz and rhythm-and-blues scenes and world-class orchestral music, the city unflinchingly welcomed rockabilly, western-swing, honky-tonk and cowboy styles.” (It also provided new collaborators, such as Cash’s co-writer on the prison song “I Got Stripes,” local disc jockey Charlie Williams.) It turned out that “a country-and-western singer scarcely needed Nashville in Los Angeles. There was a host of recording and publishing companies, high-energy disc jockeys, and a growing movie and television industry which promised bit parts, movie-soundtrack work, and the hope of Gene Autry fame.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.