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(CNN) -- He was a poor sharecropper's son from Kingsland, Arkansas, who sang to himself while picking cotton in the fields -- then later sang to millions through recordings, concerts and his late-'60s TV variety show.
He became a country music statesman who found a home with rap-rock producer Rick Rubin's American Recordings.
He was called the "Man in Black," who once sang "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die," but opened his concerts with the friendly, modest greeting, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Johnny Cash -- legend, model, icon -- died Friday. He was 71.
Cash died of complications from diabetes at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, hospital spokeswoman Nicole Bates said. He had just been released Wednesday after entering the hospital August 25 with an undisclosed stomach ailment.
Cash's wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, died May 15.
Perhaps the most widely recognized voice in country music, Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs. His career spanned more than four decades with trademark hits like "A Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues, "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line."
His success crossed well over onto the pop scene. He had 48 singles on Billboard's pop charts, rivaling both the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
His 11 Grammys included a lifetime achievement award and the 1998 Grammy for country album of the year ("Unchained"). It's said that more than 100 other recording artists and groups have recorded "I Walk the Line."
"Johnny Cash was not only a giant in our business, but he was one of those guys who had grown to become a cultural icon in American," Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association, told WTVF-TV in Nashville. "People associated him with values that I think they held near and dear to their hearts."
"I am deeply saddened by the loss of my children's grandfather and my very dear friend," added singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, who was once married to Cash's daughter Rosanne, in a statement. "I loved big John with all my heart. ... Johnny Cash will, like Will Rogers, stand forever as a symbol of intelligence, creativity, compassion and common sense."
'I don't think I could have made it'
A child of the Depression, J.R. Cash was born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. Cash's parents took advantage of a New Deal farm program, moving their large family to Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas. There they farmed cotton during the day and sang hymns on the porch at night.
When he was 12, his 14-year-old brother, Jack, died after an accident. Cash acknowledged the death had a profound impact on his music, and he noted it may have been once reason for his music's melancholy tinge.
After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force. The military wouldn't accept initials, so Cash chose John as his new first name. While stationed in Germany, Cash bought his first guitar and started a band.
"All through the Air Force, I was so lonely for those three years," Cash told The Associated Press during a 1996 interview. "If I couldn't have sung all those old country songs, I don't think I could have made it."
When his hitch was over, Cash moved to Memphis where he sold appliances door-to-door while trying to break into the music business. In 1954, he auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, hoping to record some simple gospel songs. Instead, Phillips -- who had discovered Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis -- pushed Cash toward a more commercial sound.
Cash's first single, "Hey Porter," had a disappointing debut. But his follow-up, the 1955 "Cry, Cry, Cry," drew national attention. "Folsom Prison Blues" went into the Top Five in country singles in 1956, and "I Walk the Line" became Cash's first No. 1 country hit. In 1957, he made his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. And by 1958, he'd published 50 songs, sold more than 6 million records and moved to the Columbia label.
It was at the Opry that Cash became known as "The Man in Black."
"Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots," he said in 1986. "I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I've worn black clothes ever since."
Hits, misses and comebacks
Cash in 1985. He never paid attention to the lines between musical genres -- and he made every song his own.
Through the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Cash continued to have huge hits, including "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "I Got Stripes," "Ring of Fire," and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." He toured worldwide and played free shows at prisons in the United States -- he first played San Quentin in 1958 when a young Merle Haggard was in the audience.
Living and working at a hectic pace, Cash became dependent on drugs. They took a toll on his career and ended his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto, in 1966. Fame, he said in 1988, "was hard to handle. That's why I turned to pills."
By 1967, Cash had overcome his addiction with the help of his singing partner, June Carter. Carter co-wrote (with Merle Kilgore) "Ring of Fire" about their early attraction; Cash made it his own.
"It's a sad day in Tennessee, but a great day in Heaven," said Kilgore in a statement about Cash's passing. "The 'Man in Black' is now wearing white as he joins his wife June in the angel band." Kilgore was best man at Cash's 1968 wedding to Carter.
Cash started making a comeback. By the end of the '60s, he owned the voice of country music. In the fall of 1969, he was considered by many to be the hottest act in the world, even outselling the Beatles. That year, his work accounted for 5 percent of all record sales in the U.S.
"The Johnny Cash Show" aired on ABC from 1969 to 1971 and featured guests as diverse as Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell and Louis Armstrong.
In the 1970s, Cash continued to record, although his work became more progressive and less commercial. Having never given up his fondness for gospel music, Cash co-wrote (with Larry Murray) and produced a film based on the life of Jesus. "The Gospel Road" was released in 1973, with Cash providing narration and Carter in the role of Mary Magdelene.
Cash's 1975 autobiography, also called "Man in Black," sold 1.3 million copies.
In 1980, at 48, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee. He was part of the highly successful Highwaymen quartet with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. When drug problems returned with the use of pain killers, Cash entered the Betty Ford Clinic.
Late in the decade, Cash's radio popularity was fading -- a more contemporary sound was moving into country -- and he broke with Columbia. A new contract with Mercury Nashville didn't reflect his earlier success, but concert performances remained big sellers.
Hall of Fame inductee
Cash with his wife and frequent singing partner, June Carter Cash, in 1985. The pair had several hits together, including "Jackson."
In 1992, Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, he became hot again with the release of the acoustic "American Recordings," featuring just Cash and his guitar on yet another label, Rick Rubin's American. The album landed him on the pages of Rolling Stone, People and Time.
Rubin, known for his production work with the Beastie Boys and Tom Petty, decided to let Cash be Cash -- no "countrypolitan" strings, no overly sweetened backup singers, no bull.
"When I signed with Rick's label about 10 years ago, I asked him what he would do with me that nobody else had done," Cash told The New York Times. "He said, 'I would like for you to sit in front of a microphone and sing every song you want to record.'
"I said, 'Whoa, that's a tall order. There are lots of songs over the years that I've wanted to do.' He said, 'Well, those are the ones that I want to hear.' "
So Cash's last four albums -- "American Recordings," "Unchained," "American III: Solitary Man" and "American IV: The Man Comes Around" -- were filled with songs by Tom Petty, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Nick Lowe (his former stepson-in-law), along with old chestnuts and his own work.
One song from "American IV," a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," was made into an arresting video by director Mark Romanek and nominated for several MTV Video Music Awards, including video of the year. It won only one -- for best cinematography -- but other winners, including Justin Timberlake, paid tribute to Cash at the show.
The singer was given a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1996 and was reported to have been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1997. He also had Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease that attacks the nervous system in much the same way as Parkinson's disease.
Cash had a somber image, but his songs were also full of fun and comedy. In "One Piece at a Time," he sang from the point of view of an auto assembly line worker who smuggled parts to make his own car -- one that had pieces of a " '51, '52, '53, '54" and on through the years. And Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue," which Cash took to No. 2 in 1969, was about a man who grew up hating his father because of his feminine name.
But, whether singing about outlaws of the Old West, murder and prison, unrequited love or simple pleasures, Cash sang in an unadorned, frank baritone about the plight of the common citizen. His was the voice of truth.
"My roots are in the working man," Cash told the Music City News in 1987. "I can remember very well how it is to pick cotton 10 hours a day, or to plow, or how to cut wood. I remember it so well because I don't intend to ever try to do it again."
Cash is survived by his children, Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy, Tara and John Carter.