Fans of the legendary Johnny Cash are marking what would have been his 79th birthday today, but it's hard to see it as a sad occasion. After all, the country-rock legend spent 71 long, creative and often adventurous years on this earth, causing way more trouble than anyone really has the right to live through.

From the start of his career in the mid-'50s, it was hard to put Cash into any narrow creative box. He first presented himself as a gospel singer, a move shot down by label owners. Most of his success came on the country charts, even though nothing else coming out of Nashville sounded, or looked like, him (he earned the nickname the 'Man in Black' because he didn't match the white bedazzled look of his peers.)

To further complicate things, his spirit and rhythms often belonged more to rock 'n' roll, and lyrically his songs fell more into traditional folk music.  For someone with a lesser personality, that could result in a creative muddle, but his strength of spirit shone through, making him a beloved, multi-genre and cross-generational icon.

Of course, everyone knows he had trouble with booze, pills, the law, and generally anyone telling him he couldn't do something. We all remember the iconic picture of him flipping off some poor sap in the recording studio, right? But did you know he once (allegedly) started a forest fire?

None of that stopped him from growing in stature in the eyes of his peers and music lovers everywhere. Even the natural creative ups and downs, dalliances with trends and so on that doomed many of his peers were unable to tarnish Cash's reputation. Even in the image-obsessed '80s, he managed to successfully hold his ground by teaming up with old running buddies like Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Early in the '90s, Cash enjoyed an amazing critical revival with the help of Rick Rubin, who produced a series of records that removed much of the modern calcium excess that had obscured the primal appeal of the Man in Black's mid-career records. If they got a bit too much praise than maybe they really deserved on their own merit, well, call it a lifetime achievement award or a victory lap for a true individual who always did things his way. Hell, they even made a pretty good movie about him.

Watch Johnny Cash Perform 'Ring of Fire' Live in 1963