Analysis: The copy machine, the ease of making websites, the search engine and relatively inexpensive travel made being an intimate part of Cash's fandom easy, but a more important factor is Cash’s real staying power in popular culture.

By Michael Hinds, DCU and Jonathan Silverman, UMASS Lowell

When Johnny Cash passed away on 12th September 2003, people in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, called into shopkeeper Charlie Taggart to express their sympathies. His regular customers knew that Taggart played Johnny Cash in his shop for decades, all day and every day. In some ways, Taggart is one of a kind. Who else could have such devotion?

Many people, as it turns out, and all over the world. We documented and investigated their behaviour as part of our book, Johnny Cash International: How and Why the World Loves the Man in Black, and found that eighteen years on, Cash is more popular than ever, as witnessed by his continuing presence throughout popular culture.

His music turns up on the soundtracks of movies, television shows and videogames, not to mention in the posthumous release of albums of previously unheard material. He is valued not just as a musician, but as a storyteller, lyricist and autobiographer.

Each new transmission of his output also adds to the dimensions of his fandom, which is a transnational and transgenerational phenomenon. There are fans who have been with him from the very start of his career, like Charlie Taggart, but also millions that have been drawn towards Cash out of encountering his late American Recordings albums, and in particular his cover version of the Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt", and Mark Romanek’s celebrated video for the same song.

Cash’s estate is responsible for this new material, but his fans are the real drivers of his continued popularity, innovating ways of celebrating, discussing and communicating Cash’s work that in turn generate the appetite for yet more reproductions of it.

Throughout our research, we looked at the history and culture of Johnny Cash fandom from its beginnings in newsletters and backstage meetings to its current incarnations, which include anonymous comments on YouTube videos, a sophisticated website that catalogues live performances, a crowdsourced video project, and a restaging of Cash’s famous Folsom Prison concert--on Spike Island near Cork - and everything else inbetween.

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From RTÉ Archives, Johnny Cash at the Olympia in 1988

What accounts for such varied behaviour? Cash constantly toured all around the world for more than 40 years, worked in multiple genres and with five well-known producers and was not afraid to break conventions. Fans in turn have responded passionately to new technologies and tools that have made their experience of fandom more immersive and rewarding.

The copy machine, the ease of making websites, the search engine and relatively inexpensive travel made being an intimate part of Cash’s fandom easy, but a more important factor is Cash’s real staying power in popular culture.

People everywhere feel a connection to Cash, and they express this variously. They talk of his industry, his powerful sense of reality, his empathy for other people, his inventiveness as an artist, his fundamental coolness.

To some, he speaks to both past, present and future experience, with the aura of a prophet, yet he is also seen as a comedian, unapologetically down-to-earth, above all, a survivor. Each fan in every locality fashions a Cash of their own, reflecting their own particular desires and situation. The productive paradox is that Cash encourages such intensity of identification, even as he remains so thoroughly himself.

Another phenomenal Irish fan was Finbarr Winters, a retired Garda from Cork who performed Cash’s music under the name Strictly Cash. We trailed Winters as he travelled to the Netherlands and then the American mid-South, performing a kind of pilgrimage simultaneously with promoting his own work and activity.

Winters had an incredibly powerful sense of occasion; on his last stop, he played "Angel Band" at the Carter Family Fold in Virginia, the Emmylou Harris song that Cash had played both at June Carter’s funeral and at his final public appearance.

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From the Documentary On One Podcast, Johnny Cash's Lost Tour of Ireland. Few people remember the very first Irish performances by the country music legend who would come to love Ireland and be loved by the Irish.

Winters worked particularly effectively with other 'deep' Cash fans from Europe, all of them showing a remarkable aptitude for cultural entrepreneurship. They met Elvira van Poelgeest, founder of the online Cash database, a relentless performer of Cash’s music in a number of groups, and intrepid Cash-tourist, and Walter Ringhofer, an Austrian who established his own Cash Museum (and music festival) in his rural hometown of Riedlingsdorf.

Not long after the publication of our book, Walter died very unexpectedly, and the online expressions of shock and grief were worldwide; this really demonstrated the power of community in Cash fandom, for all of the individualism and self-determination that many of the fans demonstrate.

Fans worldwide model themselves substantially on Cash’s own example, a self-styled 'solitary man' who nevertheless was peculiarly active in the social sphere and thrived on doing things for other people. Cash’s sheer tenacity as a performer, his capacity for reinvention, similarly inspires the people who listen to him; they use him as a guide, adopting his wit, guile, and candour to prevail through crisis.

Even now, Cash fans endlessly make playlists, now that technology affords them such creative possibilities, and that they make them for all trials and occasions, whether it is life, death, love or COVID-19. Everything can look more bearable through the lens of Johnny Cash.

Michael Hinds is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Dublin City University and Jonathan Silverman is a professor of English and director of the American Studies program at UMass Lowell.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ