Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley may represent two distinct paths of American music, but at one point, they had enough in common to share not just a record label, but a historic recording session along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
On December 4, 1956, the four met up with nothing in mind except to spend a day in the studio, yet one by one, they came together to put that reunion on tape. Johnny Cash recounted the events in his autobiography.
“Nobody else was booked into the studio. I was there – I was the first to arrive and the last to leave, contrary to what has been written. I was just there to watch Carl record, which he did until mid-afternoon, when Elvis came in with his girlfriend. At that point the session stopped and we all started laughing and cutting up together. Then [Presley] sat down at the piano, and we started singing gospel songs we all knew, then some Bill Monroe songs.”
Local press dubbed them the Million Dollar Quartet, but it wouldn’t be until nearly 30 years later that the sessions would see the light of day — long after Johnny was a seasoned country artist and Elvis had died of a suspected prescription drug overdose in 1977. Of course, the appeal of Cash and Presley together was too much to resist once the record was finally released in 1981. Several commemorative re-releases followed. By 2007, a Tony-winning jukebox musical of the same name cemented the meeting’s place in American music history.
This shared history does lead one to wonder why we consider these artist to be parts of different genres. Why exactly is Johnny considered a country musician? Why isn’t Elvis? There’s clearly a strong rockabilly undercurrent in both of their music. They both love gospel. They both croon. They both sing about heartbreak. Are they simply seen that way because that’s what Cash and Presley — and subsequently radio stations and music journalist — identified them as?
While Elvis’ life was cut short, the label became more difficult to pin down as Johnny’s career went on. The most listened-to Cash song on Spotify, for example, isn’t his mariachi-sampling “Ring of Fire” or even his signature “Walk the Line,” but his cover of industrial rock ballad “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Even his own interpretation is much more Nick Cave than Hank Williams.
His early association with Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis makes it hard to chuck this up to latter-era experimentation. There was clearly always a rocker in Johnny Cash. The most iconic photo of him is more punk than country western, giving the middle finger to the camera while performing at a prison.
In a time where the United States is facing sharp political division between its heartland (country) and its urban centers (rock and roll), CMT’s Sun Records miniseries offers up a story that reminds us that, really, the two genres of music are both essential part of Americana. Blues, folk, country, and rockabilly have all evolved further and further away from one another, but they extend from a common root, so much so that as a group they are often referred to as “roots music.” Even those who “hate country” are often fans of Johnny, whereas Elvis has a sound so distinct from today’s rock music that it’s not uncommon to find diehard fans indifferent to his songs.
Even today, we can still find clear examples of artists from each genre meeting in the middle. The Dixie Chicks recently performed with Beyonce at the Country Music Awards. Lady Gaga chose one of the biggest years of her career — in which she headlined the ultimate American past-time, the Superbowl — to release a country album. Jack White brought Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose — the most lauded record of her career — to life a decade ago, and the most critically acclaimed country LP of 2016, Margot Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, might have never gotten released if it weren’t for the White Stripes frontman’s intervention.
These divisions between rock and country seem relatively minor compared to the climate in which Cash and Presley met together for their jam session. In his autobiography, Johnny wrote that while many were listening to “race” music behind closed doors, Elvis was one of the first ones to bring it out into the open. At least today a teenager in Tennessee wouldn’t have to hide their Kendrick Lamar MP3s from their friends.
Similarly, Cash himself was making country cool. The style had to undergo its own changes to become acceptable to a mainstream audience. Early incarnations were referred to as “hillbilly music,” a word that today can be taken as a class or even racial slur depending on the context. That’s a far cry from the Dolly Partons of the scene that would emerge just decades later, and even further from the glammed-out presentation of Carrie Underwood at the Grammys this year.
Johnny later wrote that he and Elvis grew apart as the years wore on, as many did from the King as Presley retreated in Graceland. He doesn’t, however, seem to indicate that this was anything personal, though June Carter Cash did later tell her children that her husband was always jealous of him. How could there not be some friendly rivalry? After all, clearly the pair were contemporaries, pushing the same instruments in different directions in a series of domestic cultural exchanges.
That’s the story that CMT’s new miniseries Sun Records will tell when it premieres Thursday evening at 10 ET/9 CT. If you don’t have the country music channel, you can also catch the story of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash on Nickelodeon and TV Land.
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive and ABC Television/Getty Images]