Country singer, guitarist, songwriter. Born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. The son of poor Southern Baptist sharecroppers, Cash, one of seven children born to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash, moved with his family at the age of three to Dyess, Arkansas, so that his father could take advantage of the New Deal farming programs instituted by President Roosevelt. There, the Cash clan lived in a five-room house and farmed 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops.
John, or J.R. as he was known to those close to him, spent the bulk of the next 15 years out in the fields, working alongside his parents and brothers and sisters. It wasn't always an easy life, Cash would later recall. At the age of 10 he was hauling water for a road gang and at 12 years old he moving large sacks of cotton.
"The entire family, my parents, two brothers and two sisters spent the first night in the truck under a tarpaulin" Cash once said about his family's move to Dyess. "The last thing I remember before going to sleep was my mother beating time on the old Sears-Roebuck guitar, singing 'What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul."
Music was indeed one of the ways the Cash family found escape from some of the hardship. Songs surrounded the young Johnny Cash, be it his mother's folk and hymn ballads, or the working music people sang out in the fields.
From an early age Cash, who first picked up the guitar at the age of 12, showed a love for the music that enveloped his life. Perhaps sensing that her boy had a gift for song, Carrie Rivers Cash scraped together enough money so that Johnny could take singing lessons. Cash was only in his early teens and didn't have much in the way of formal musical training, but after just three lessons his teacher, enthralled with Cash's already unique singing style, told him to stop taking lessons and to never deviate from his natural voice.
Religion, too, had a strong impact on Cash's childhood. His mother was a devout member of the Pentacostal Church of God, and his older brother Jack seemed committed to joining the priesthood. Chances are John's own faith would have always exerted itself to some degree on his own life, but Jack's tragic death in 1944 at the age of 14 in a farming accident solidified Cash's own faith in God.
These things, his farming life and his family's religion, were never strayed too far from in Cash's career. The evidence of this can be seen in songs like Pickin' Time and Five Feet High, a film he made about his visit to Israel, and his close relationship with evangelist Billy Graham.
In 1950 Cash graduated high school and left Arkansas for Pontiac, Michigan, where he found work sweeping floors at an auto plant. The employment and Cash's time in Michigan were short lived, however, and about a month after taking the job, he bolted for the U.S. Air Force. As a military man, Cash did his basic training in Texas, where met Vivian Liberto, whom he'd eventually marry and father four daughters with. 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," he said later, "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. I wrote Folsom Prison Blues in Germany in 1953."
After his discharge in 1954 Cash settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he married Vivian and 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 Luther's house on Friday nights to play music, much of it gospel. Cash, who banged away on an old $5 guitar he'd purchased in Germany, was the front-man for what became known as Johnny Cash and Tennessee Two. Their sound was a synthesis of blues and country-and-western music, which was coined "rockabilly" by those in the record industry. (In 1960, with the addition of drummer W.S. Holland, the group was later named Tennessee Three.)
"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."
In July 1954, another Memphis musician, Elvis Presley, cut his first record, sparking a wave of not only Elvis mania but an interest in the local producer, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, who had issued the record. Later that same year Cash, Grant, and Perkins made an announced visit to Sun to ask Phillips for an audition. The Sun Records owner gave in and Cash and the boys returned to Sun in late 1954. At the audition Phillips liked their sound but not their gospel driven song choices, which he felt would have a limited market.
Phillips was looking for new material and encouraged the group to return with an original song. In early 1955, Cash and his group did just that, recording the song Hey Porter, which Cash wrote just a week after that first Sun session. While met with mediocre reviews, Cash's second release, Cry, Cry, Cry later that year peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts. Other hits soon followed, including a pair of Top 10 singles in 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 number one and sold 2 million copies.
The success and his association with Phillips allowed Cash to join an elite group of artists that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis - they were known as "The Million Dollar Quartet." In 1957 Cash, now the father of two young daughters (Roseanne and Kathy) released his debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar.
By the early 1960s, Johnny Cash, who had relocated his family to Ventura, California, and left Sun for Columbia Records in 1958, was a musical superstar. With an unrelenting tour schedule, Cash was on the road 300 nights a year, barnstorming the country with a barrage of popular hits including Ring of Fire (1963) and Understand Your Man (1964). He also appeared regularly on the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts.
But the schedule and the pressures that faced him took a toll on his personal life. Drugs and alcohol were frequent tour companions while Vivian, left home to take care of their young family, which now included Cindy (b. 1959) and Tara (b. 1961) grew increasingly frustrated with her husband's absence.
In 1966 Vivian finally filed for divorce. Cash returned to Memphis, where his life continued to spiral out of control. The following year, after a serious drug binge, Cash was discovered in a near-death state by a policeman in a small village in Georgia. There were other incidents, too, including an arrest for smuggling amphetamines into the US across the Mexican border, and accidently starting a forest fire in Tennessee, which resulted in a near six-figure fine for the singer.
"I took all the drugs there are to take, and I drank," Cash recalled. "Everybody said that Johnny Cash was through 'cause I was walkin around town 150 pounds. I looked like walking death."
The turning point came in 1967, when he met singer-songwriter June Carter, a member of the founding family of country music. Carter, who first befriended and then, in 1968, married Cash, stepped in and helped him clean up his life. With Carter's support, Cash kicked his drug habit and became a devout Christian fundamentalist.
With his new wife, Cash embarked on a remarkable turn around. In 1969, he began hosting The Johnny Cash Show, a TV variety series that showcased contemporary musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Louis Armstrong. It also provided a forum for Cash to explore a number of social issues, too, tackling discussions that ranged from the war in Vietnam to prison reform to the rights of Native Americans.
The same year his show debuted, Cash also took home two Grammy Awards for the live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968). The album was a critical and commercial success and reached Gold record status by December 1969. Four months later Cash and Carter celebrated the birth of their first and only child, John Carter Cash, in March 1970.
The ensuing decade offered up more success for the artist, with Cash's music career flourishing with the release of the hit singles A Thing Called Love (1972) and One Piece at a Time (1976). He crossed over into a new medium in 1972, when he made an acclaimed appearance with Kirk Douglas in the movie, A Gunfight. In addition, he wrote the scores for the feature Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), and the TV movie The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1980). In 1975, he published a bestselling autobiography Man in Black.
For the rest of the 1970s and through the 1980s and the early 1990s, while not producing the frequent run of hits that he once had, Cash continued to maintain a busy schedule. In 1980, Cash was accepted as the youngest member of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame.
Increasingly, Cash also teamed up with other musicians. In 1987, Cash banded with former Sun Records' artists Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison to record the widely popular compilation The Class Of '55. For the album The Highwayman (1985), Cash collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. Billed as the Highwaymen, the quartet consistently toured throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, releasing two more records, The Highwayman 2 (1990) and The Road Goes on Forever (1995). In the early part of the 1990s, Cash stepped into the studio with U2 to record The Wanderer, a track that would appear on the group's 1993 release, Zooropa.
Throughout this time, though, Cash's health problems and his continued battles with addiction, were nearby. In 1983, he underwent abdominal surgery in Nashville to correct the problems caused by his years of amphetamine use. Following the operation, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic. In 1987, Cash again went under the knife, this time for heart surgery following his collapse on tour in Iowa.
But like always Cash pushed on. Not long after his induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the singer took the stage for the Lollapalooza alternative rock tour and then teamed up with music producer Rick Rubin. The latter move proved to be instrumental in forging a Johnny Cash renaissance.
Under Rubin, Cash released American Recordings in 1994, a 13-track acoustic album that mixed traditional ballads with modern compositions. The album earned Cash a new audience and a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash's next compilation was a three-disc set appropriately titled Love, God, Murder (2000).
In 2002 Cash released American IV: The Man Comes Around, a mix of originals and covers including songs from Beatles to Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The album, recorded in cabin on the singer's Nashville estate, was the fourth Cash-Rubin compilation. More significantly, it came five years after the singer had announced he'd been diagnosed with a rare nervous-system disorder called Shy-Drager Syndrome.
Over the next year, Cash's health continued to decline. He rarely made public appearances. Then in May 2003, June Carter died. Cash, though, continued to work. With Rubin at his side, the singer sat down to record what would be known as American V: A Hundred Highways. Just 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," Rubin recalled around the album's release on July 4, 2004. "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.' "
Starkly arranged and sometimes mournful, the songs highlighted Cash's older and rougher sounding voice, which resonated with a raw honesty. Cash earned a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video for God's Gonna Cut You Down. He was also posthumously honored at the CMA annual awards in late 2003, winning best album for American IV, best single, and best video.
Not surprisingly, Cash's life and music continues to resonate. In 2005, the story of his love affair with June Cash was made into a feature film,Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. In 2006, a two-CD collection of unearthed songs from an obscure recording session Cash did in 1973 was released. And the following year the community of Starkville, Mississippi, paid honor to the performer and his arrest there in 1965 for picking flowers with the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival. Cash was also issued an official pardon. "I think he'll be remembered for the way he grew as a person and an artist," wrote Kris Kristofferson in 2004, upon Cash's selection by Rolling Stone magazine as the 31st greatest artist of all time. "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."