Johnny Cash: Early Years and Air Force

1932-1954

Johnny Cash - American VI album cover
Johnny Cash - 'American VI: Ain't No Grave' (2010). Image courtesy of American Recordings

Early Years

Johnny Cash was born John R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932. He grew up near Memphis in Dyess, a planned community constructed as part of the New Deal. Johnny Cash was first introduced to country music through the radio.

Death of Brother

Johnny began playing his own songs at the age of 12, the same age when his beloved older brother, Jack, died. While working at a mill, Jack was pulled into the blade of a moving saw.

He was just 15 years old, and it took Jack over a week to succumb to his wounds.

The accident had a profound impact on Johnny Cash's life.

"Jack has stayed with me," the singer wrote in his 1997 autobiography Cash. "He's been there in those songs we sang at his funeral . . . and those songs have sustained and renewed me my whole life. . . They're powerful those songs. At time they've been my only way back, the only way out of the dark, bad places . . ."

Military Service

After receiving his high school diploma in 1950, and briefly working in a Detroit auto plant, Cash enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed in Landsberg, Germany, during the Korean War. He remained there until 1954 when he was honorably discharged.

Cash returned to San Antonio, Texas, where he had received his military training, and married his first wife, Vivian Liberto.

The pair relocated to Memphis. Johnny took a course in radio announcing (he had worked as a DJ in Germany).

He also formed a three-piece band with guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant (later known as the Tennessee Two), that played shows at night.

  • Early Years and Air Force: 1932-1954
  • Sun Records and Stardom: 1955-1959
  • Drugs and June Carter Cash: 1960-1967
  • Folsom Prison and The Johnny Cash Show: 1968-1979
  • Career Decline, American Recordings, and Death: 1980-2003

In 1955, the aspiring country singer landed an audition with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Cash sung gospel tunes, which failed to impress Phillips. Cash returned later with a secular song he wrote, reportedly "Hey Porter." It won the young singer a coveted recording contract with the man who had made Elvis famous. By July, Cash had released his first single, "Hey Porter" paired with "Cry! Cry! Cry!" The 45 record was well received: it debuted at number 14 on the country charts.

The song's popularity secured him a place on The Louisiana Hayride, and in 1956 Cash released his classic "Folsom Prison Blues" for Sun. But it was Cash's next single, "I Walk the Line," that was his breakthrough. It became a #1 country hit that even crossed over into the pop charts.

The hits kept coming, and in 1957 he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in all black. His attire earned him the nickname that would follow him through the years: the Man in Black. That same year he released his first long-playing album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar. This was a rarity at Sun Records, which concentrated on singles.

With his star rising, and most of his musical profits landing in Sam Phillips's pocket, Cash left Sun in 1958 to join the roster at Columbia Records. There, he released one of the biggest singles of his career, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." The next year he released a long-gestating gospel album, Hymns by Johnny Cash.

  • Early Years and Air Force: 1932-1954
  • Sun Records and Stardom: 1955-1959
  • Drugs and June Carter Cash: 1960-1967
  • Folsom Prison and The Johnny Cash Show: 1968-1979
  • Career Decline, American Recordings, and Death: 1980-2003

Johnny Cash toured throughout the early 1960s, playing as many as 300 shows a year. He began taking amphetamines to keep up with the pace of his life. For a spell he was roommates in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who also had a problem with pills.

During this period, Cash had many run-ins with the law. While on tour in 1965, he was busted by a narcotics squad who discovered a vast store of prescriptions pills in his guitar case.

He was also accused of starting a forest fire in California. And, in Starkville, Mississippi, he was arrested for picking flowers on private property.

As his drug addiction worsened, Cash broke up with his first wife Vivian. By 1963, he had moved to New York City, effectively abandoning his family.

In 1968, Cash conquered his addiction with the help of God and June Carter, who he married that year. (He had first met June when he toured with the Carter Family in the early '60s.) Although Cash would have relapses in the future, the worst was over.

  • Early Years and Air Force: 1932-1954
  • Sun Records and Stardom: 1955-1959
  • Drugs and June Carter Cash: 1960-1967
  • Folsom Prison and The Johnny Cash Show: 1968-1979
  • Career Decline, American Recordings, and Death: 1980-2003

In 1968, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison. The live recording of the performance, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, became one of his best-selling albums. It cemented Cash's image as a counterculture figure. His live version of "Folsom Prison Blues," with the screams of the incarcerated cheering him on, became a #1 hit on the country charts.

Cash followed it up with Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969.

In 1969, Cash moved into television, premiering The Johnny Cash Show on ABC. His first guest on the variety program was Bob Dylan, with whom he'd recently worked with on Nashville Skyline. During the run of the show, Cash served as a cross-generational musical ambassador. While his longtime fans would be familiar enough with guests Carl Perkins, Merle Haggard, and Roger Miller, he also welcomed new folk acts like Melanie, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie to perform. The show ran until 1971, broadcasting 58 episodes in all.

In addition to releasing hits like the politically charged "Man in Black," the love song "Flesh and Blood," and Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" in the '70s, Cash also championed many social causes for much of that decade.

  • Early Years and Air Force: 1932-1954
  • Sun Records and Stardom: 1955-1959
  • Drugs and June Carter Cash: 1960-1967
  • Folsom Prison and The Johnny Cash Show: 1968-1979
  • Career Decline, American Recordings, and Death: 1980-2003

By the late '70s, Cash had dipped precipitously in popularity, with few hits.

As if signaling that his career was over, Johnny Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. He became the youngest performer to be given that honor.

In 1985, he formed The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. The outlaw ensemble released their first album to modest sales.

Increasingly, Cash found his traditional brand of country music out of favor in Nashville. His ouster from country radio became complete in the '90s, as New Country acts like Garth Brooks ruled the airwaves.

A turning point in Cash's career came when he signed with American Records in 1993. With a stripped-down sound and producer Rick Rubin at helm, Cash released American Recordings to general acclaim. His future collaborations with Rubin were received just as warmly, and earned him a new, younger audience; he met them halfway by covering songs by Nick Cave, Beck, and Tom Petty.

In 2002, "Hurt," originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails, was released on Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around. It became one of his biggest successes, buoyed by a video that appeared to be a reckoning with his own hell-raising past. The video featured his wife June Carter Cash who, in 2003, died following heart surgery.

Cash was devastated, and quickly followed her. On September 12, 2003, Johnny Cash died from complications from diabetes. He'd been diagnosed earlier with Shy-Drager syndrome, and toward the end had experienced numerous health complications.

Bob Dylan was among those who eulogized Cash:

If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. . . Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he'll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet -- especially those persons -- and that is forever.

  • Early Years and Air Force: 1932-1954
  • Sun Records and Stardom: 1955-1959
  • Drugs and June Carter Cash: 1960-1967
  • Folsom Prison and The Johnny Cash Show: 1968-1979
  • Career Decline, American Recordings, and Death: 1980-2003