Johnny Cash Biography

A biography of one of music's biggest forces

Singer Johnny Cash
Singer Johnny Cash. Google Images/

Johnny Cash was born J.R. Cash on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Ark. The Cash family is Scottish: descendants of the Caesche clan, Americanized to "Cash." Cash was the fourth of seven children born into a dirt-poor family. Parents Ray and Carrie, hardworking Southern Baptist sharecroppers, relocated the family to Dyess, Ark., when Cash was 3 years old to take advantage of the New Deal farming programs initiated by President Franklin D.


Cash, his parents and siblings farmed 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops. It was a hard life, but music was one way through which the family, including Cash, found escape. They sang working songs in the fields, and his mother would sing folk songs and hymns. Cash started playing guitar at the age of 12, and music quickly became more of a passion than a hobby. Sensing this, his mother scraped together enough money for singing lessons. Just three lessons in, his teacher, enamored with his vocal style, told him to stop taking lessons and never deviate from his unique, natural voice.

Much of Cash's general outlook on life was shaped by the traumatic death of his older brother, Jack, in 1944. He was pulled into a head saw in the mill where he worked and suffered devastating injuries. He died several days later. Cash suffered agonizing guilt and depression over the loss of his brother, which he speaks about frankly in the book "Cash: The Autobiography." The event reaffirmed Cash's faith in God, and music, especially gospel, helped him persevere.

He graduated form high school in 1950 and moved north to Pontiac, Mich., where he worked at an auto plant before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. He met Vivian Liberto while at basic training in Texas, who he would eventually marry and have four daughters with. Cash was stationed in West Germany, where he worked as a radio intercept operator.

While there, he started focusing more of his attention on music. He formed a group with some friends, performed live, and began taking guitar playing and songwriting more seriously.

Early Career

Cash's time with the military was up in 1954. He moved to Memphis, Tenn., married Vivian and became a salesman. He continued to pursue music on the side, forming a group with Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. They became known as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, performing a blend of blues and country western music, later coined as "rockabilly."

Sun Records, based in Memphis, has just released Elvis Presley's first album in 1954, helmed by producer Sam Phillips. Cash, Grant and Perkins showed up unannounced at Sun Records' headquarters and asked Phillips for an audition. He liked them, but felt that their gospel-driven sound would attract a limited audience, and urged them to try again with an original song. Cash wrote the song "Hey Porter," and it was enough to get them signed. The song was a lukewarm success, but their second release, "Cry, Cry, Cry," peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts.

​Their breakout success arrived in 1956 with the Cash classic "I Walk the Line." The song skyrocketed to No.

1 and sold two million copies. Cash was now successful enough to join the ranks of the elite artists Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Louis. They became known as "The Million Dollar Quartet." The following year, Cash decided to purse a solo career and released the debut album Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar.

Hard Times:

Cash moved the family to Ventura, Calif., and signed with Columbia Records in 1958. By the early 1960s, he was a full fledged superstar, spending 300 nights a year on the road singing hits from 1963's Ring of Fire and 1964's Understand Your Man. Not surprisingly, the schedule and pressures of touring took a toll, and he turned to drugs and alcohol for release. In turn, his marriage began deteriorating. Cash moved back to Memphis where he plummeted as he sank further into addiction.

A policeman found him nearly dead in a small town in Georgia, he was arrested in El Paso, Texas, for trying to smuggle amphetamines across the border, and the Grand Ole Opry refused to let him perform after he destroyed the venue's footlights. Vivian filed for divorce in 1966.

The Reformation:

He promptly moved to Nashville and became close friends with June Carter, a member of the founding family of country music. She helped him shake his addiction and get back in touch with religion. In 1968 Cash proposed to Carter during a concert in London, Ontario, and they wed a few months later. That same year he released his most popular albums of all time, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

Cash had bounced back. In 1969 he started hosting "The Johnny Cash Show," a variety show that featured contemporary musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, and he took home two Grammys for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. In 1970 Carter gave birth to the couple's only child, John Carter Cash. Cash's career continued to thrive with the release of the hit singles "A Thing Called Love" and "One Piece at a Time." In 1972 he appeared in the movie "A Gunfight" alongside Kirk Douglas, and performed for President Richard Nixon at the White House. Cash and Carter also began campaigning for the civil rights of Native Americans and prisoners, often working with legendary evangelist Billy Graham.

A Rough Patch

By the mid 1970s, Cash's presence on the country charts took a downturn. He had a few minor hits and the occasional chart-topper like "One Piece at a Time" and the Waylon Jennings duet "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang." In 1975 Cash released an autobiography titled "Man in Black."

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. At the time, he was the youngest inductee. Still, times proved to be difficult.

Record sales were on the decline. During the mid-1980s, Cash teamed up with buddies Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the group The Highwaymen. The quartet released their first album in 1985, which was a moderate success.

Cash signed with Mercury Nashville in 1986, but the relationship didn't pan out. In addition to creative differences with the label, Cash didn't fit the new mold of where country music was headed. The industry favored contemporary artists and he was unfortunately shut out. Still, Cash continued to be an extremely successful concert performer.

On the Up

Just when it seemed like Nashville was starting to ignore him, the rest of the world appeared to be discovering him. The Highwaymen released their sophomore effort in 1992, which was more successful than any of Cash's solo records with Mercury. He was also inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame that year.

He signed with Rick Rubin's label, American Records, in 1993 and released American Recordings the following year. The album wasn't a runaway hit, but the unplugged collection of songs exposed Cash to a younger audience and won him a 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Cash released three more albums under American Records, including Unchained, which earned him a Grammy for Best Country Album.

In 2000 he compiled the three-disc set Love, God, Murder, and in 2002 he released American IV: The Man Comes Around, an album of originals and covers that range from The Beatles to Nine Inch Nails. The material was completely unexpected, and he earned a nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards for his cover of the Nine In Nails song "Hurt."

Death and Legacy:

June Carter Cash passed away on May 15, 2003, of complications following heart surgery, and a few months later, Cash died of complications from diabetes on September 12, 2003. He was 71. Five months after his death, the compilation Legend of Johnny Cash became a Top Ten hit, and he was posthumously honored at the CMA Awards for winning best album, best single and best video for American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Cash has touched nearly everyone who records music, no matter what genre they're a part of. He has fans from every walk of life, from every age group, and continues to gain new fans more than ten years after his death. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, Cash was a driving force in music. He was an uncompromising, tireless entertainer, and he never stopped, even when his own industry closed the door on him.

Johnny Cash is an icon, a force of nature, a deeply humble and flawed man with a voice like thunder.

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