Tribute Page: Johnny Cash

The Man in Black

Photo of young Johnny Cash
American rock and country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, circa 1965.

Early Life

J. R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers). He was the fourth of seven children, who were in birth order: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J. R., Reba, Joanne, and Tommy (who also became a successful country artist). He was primarily of English and Scottish descent.As an adult he traced his surname to 11th-century Fife, after meeting with the then-laird of Falkland, Major Michael Crichton-Stuart. Cash Loch and other locations in Fife bear the name of his family.

At birth, Cash was named J. R. Cash. When Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he started going by Johnny Cash.

In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal colony established to give poor families a chance to work land that they had a chance to own as a result. J.R. started working in cotton fields at the age of five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which led him later to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties. He had sympathy for the poor and working class.

Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for more than a week before dying on May 20, 1944, at the age of 15.Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but Johnny and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day. His mother urged Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working since the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven.

Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When young, Cash had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone after his voice changed. In high school, he sang on a local radio station. Decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music, which he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.

Military Service and Musical Aspirations

In 1950, Cash graduated high school and left Dyess to seek employment, venturing to Pontiac, Michigan, for a brief stint at an auto body plant. That summer he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as "John R. Cash"—military regulations required a full first name—and he was sent for training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he met future wife Vivian Liberto. For the bulk of his four years in the Air Force, Cash was stationed in Landsberg, West Germany, where he worked as a radio intercept officer, eavesdropping on Soviet radio traffic.

It was also in Germany that Cash began to turn more of his attention toward music. With a few of his Air Force buddies he formed the Landsberg Barbarians, giving Johnny a chance to play live shows, teach himself more of the guitar, and also take a shot at songwriting.

"We were terrible, but that Lowenbrau beer will make you feel like you're great. We'd take our instruments to these honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started."

After his discharge in July 1954, Cash married Vivian and settled with her in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked, as best he could, as an appliance salesman. Pursuing music on the side, Cash teamed up with a couple of mechanics, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, who worked with Johnny's older brother Roy. The young musicians soon formed a tight bond, with the crew and their wives often heading over to one of their houses to play music, much of it gospel.

Cash, who banged away on an old $5 guitar he'd purchased in Germany, became the frontman for the group, and they honed their unique synthesis of blues and country-and-western music through live performances. "He was a decent singer, not a great one," wrote Marshall Grant, in his 2006 autobiography, I Was There When it Happened: My Life with Johnny Cash. "But there was power and presence in his voice."

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two

In July 1954, another Memphis musician, Elvis Presley, cut his first record, sparking a wave of Elvis-mania as well as an interest in the local producer, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, who had issued the record. Later that year Cash, Grant and Perkins made an unannounced visit to Sun to ask Phillips for an audition. The Sun Records owner gave in and Cash and the boys soon returned to show off their skills. Phillips liked their sound but not their gospel-driven song choices, which he felt would have a limited market, and asked them to return with an original song.

The trio did just that, beginning work on the Cash-written "Hey Porter," shortly that first Sun session. Phillips liked that song, as well as the group's follow-up effort, "Cry, Cry, Cry," and signed the newly branded Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. "Hey Porter" was released in May 1955 and later that year "Cry, Cry, Cry" peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts.

Other hits followed, including the Top 10 tracks "So Doggone Lonesome" and "Folsom Prison Blues." But true fame arrived in 1956, when Cash wrote and released "I Walk The Line," which catapulted to No. 1 on the country music charts and sold 2 million copies. He released his debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar in 1957, and cemented his fame with chart-toppers like "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town."

Final Years and Legacy

Cash's physical health became more of an issue in the late 1990s. He was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome—a misdiagnosis that was later corrected to autonomic neuropathy—and was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1998.

Still, the artist continued making music. In 2002, he released American IV: The Man Comes Around, a mix of originals and covers, including songs from the Beatles to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The album, recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, was the fourth Cash-Rubin compilation.

Over the next year, Cash's health continued to decline. He was devastated when his longtime love, June Carter, died in May 2003, but he continued to work. With Rubin at his side, the singer recorded what would become American V: A Hundred Highways. Just a week before his death on September 12, 2003, from complications associated with diabetes, Cash wrapped up his final track.

"Once June passed, he had the will to live long enough to record, but that was pretty much all. A day after June passed, he said, 'I need to have something to do every day. Otherwise, there's no reason for me to be here.'"

Cash's music producer Rick Rubin

That November, Cash was posthumously honored at the CMA annual awards, winning best album for American IV, best single and best video. In 2005, the story of his life and career through the late 1960s was made into a feature film, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter.

In 2006, fans were treated to new music from the late artist. May brought Personal File, a two-CD set of unreleased material recorded decades earlier. In July, American V: A Hundred Highways was unveiled. Starkly arranged and sometimes mournful, the songs highlighted Cash's older and rougher sounding voice, which seared with a raw honesty.

Not surprisingly, Cash's influence continued to resonate. In 2007, the community of Starkville, Mississippi, paid honor to the performer and his arrest there in 1965 for public intoxication with the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival. The following year, the late artist won another Grammy, for Best Short Form Music Video for God's Gonna Cut You Down.

"I think he'll be remembered for the way he grew as a person and an artist. He went from being this guy who was as wild as Hank Williams to being almost as respected as one of the fathers of our country. He was friends with presidents and with Billy Graham. You felt like he should've had his face on Mount Rushmore."

Kris Kristofferson in 2010, upon Cash's selection by Rolling Stone magazine as the 31st greatest artist of all time

In 2010, additional material from recording sessions with Rubin were released as American VI: Ain't No Grave. In December 2013, it was revealed that another album from Cash had been unearthed. Out Among the Stars, which had been recorded in the early 1980s but never released by Columbia Records, was discovered by John Carter Cash in his father's archives. Underscoring the singer's sustained popularity, the album became a chart-topper following its release in March 2014.

You can find many more details about Johnny Cash's life and his discography on his Wikipedia page.