Spotlight Artist - Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is another great recording artist that needs no real introduction.
He is not only an American icon but was loved world wide especially in Great Britain. His life was also
a story book soap opera which made the screen in the movie "Walk the Line."
Johnny Cash was born J. R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Ray (1897–1985) and Carrie (née
Rivers) Cash (1904–1991), and raised in Dyess, Arkansas
Cash was given the name "J.R." because his parents could not agree on a name, only on initials.
When he enlisted in the United States Air Force, the military would not accept initials as his name, so he
adopted John R. Cash as his legal name. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage
name. His friends and in-laws generally called him John, while his blood relatives usually continued to call him
Cash was one of seven children: Jack, Joanne Cash Yates, Louise Garrett, Reba Hancock, Roy, and
Tommy. His younger brother, Tommy Cash, also became a successful country artist.
By the age of five, J.R. was working in the cotton fields, singing along with his family as they
worked. The family farm was flooded on at least one occasion, which later inspired him to write the song "Five Feet
High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Depression inspired many of his
songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his brother Jack, who was two years older. In 1944, Jack was pulled into
a whirling table saw in the mill where he worked, and cut almost in two. He suffered for over a week before he
died. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The
Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions
or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his
brother. Jack insisted on working, as 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. He wrote that he
had seen his brother many times in his dreams, and that Jack always looked two years older than whatever age Cash
himself was at that moment.
Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught by his mother and a
childhood friend, Cash began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy. 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 that he heard performed weekly by Dennis
Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base
and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to a U.S. Air Force
Security Service unit, assigned as a code intercept operator for Soviet Army transmissions, at Landsberg,
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17 year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller
skating rink in her native San Antonio. They dated for three weeks, until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three
year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters.
On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Anne's Catholic
church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters:
Rosanne (born May 24, 1955), Kathy (born April 16, 1956), Cindy (born July 29, 1958) and Tara (born August 24,
1961). Cash's drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, and affairs with other women (including future wife June
Carter) led Liberto to file for divorce in 1966.
In 1968, 12 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June
Carter, an established country singer, during a live performance in London, Ontario, marrying on March 1, 1968 in
Franklin, Kentucky. He had proposed numerous times, but she had always refused. They had one child together, John
Carter Cash (born March 3, 1970).
They continued to work together and tour for 35 years, until June Carter died in 2003. Cash died
just four months later. Carter co-wrote one of his biggest hits, "Ring of Fire," and they won two Grammy awards for
Vivian Liberto claims a different version of the origins of "Ring of Fire" in I Walked the Line:
My Life with Johnny, stating that Cash gave Carter the credit for monetary reasons.
In 1954, Cash and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances while studying to
be a radio announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and
Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a
recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him that gospel
was unmarketable. It was once rumored that Phillips told Cash to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can
sell," though Cash refuted that Phillips made any such comment in a 2002 interview. Cash eventually won over
the producer with new songs delivered in his early frenetic style. His first recordings at Sun, "Hey Porter" and
"Cry Cry Cry", were released in 1955 and met with reasonable success on the country hit parade.
Cash's next record, "Folsom Prison Blues", made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" became
No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. Following "I Walk the Line" was "Home of the Blues",
recorded in July 1957. That same year Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he
was Sun's most consistently best-selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract
with the small label. Elvis Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and
promotion on Jerry Lee Lewis. The following year Cash left the label to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia
Records, where his single "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" became one of his biggest hits.
In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included
Mother Maybelle's daughters, Anita, June and Helen. June, whom Cash would eventually marry, later recalled admiring
him from afar during these tours.
As his career was taking off in the early 1960s, Cash started drinking heavily and became
addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon
Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked
about his "nervousness" and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction. In a
behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have "tried every drug there was to try."
Although in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash's frenetic creativity was still delivering
hits. His rendition of "Ring of Fire" was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the
Top 20 on the pop charts. The song was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. The song was originally performed
by Carter's sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had
come to him in a dream.
In June 1965, his truck caught fire due to an overheated wheel bearing, triggering a forest fire
that burned several hundred acres in Los Padres National Forest in California. When the judge asked Cash why he did
it, Cash said, "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it." The fire destroyed 508
acres (2.06 km2), burning the foliage off three mountains and killing 49 of the refuge's 53 endangered condors.
Cash was unrepentant: "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards." The federal government sued him and was
awarded $125,172 ($845,341 in current dollar terms). Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. He said he
was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence.
Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night. His most infamous
run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas.
The officers suspected that he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but it was prescription narcotics and amphetamines
that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because they were prescription drugs rather than illegal
narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.
Cash was also arrested on May 11, 1965, in Starkville, Mississippi, for trespassing late at
night onto private property to pick flowers. (This incident gave the spark for the song "Starkville City Jail",
which he spoke about on his live At San Quentin prison album.)
In the mid 1960s, Cash released a number of concept albums, including Ballads Of the True West
(1965), an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, and Bitter
Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at
this point, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances.
In 1967, Cash's duet with Carter, "Jackson", won a Grammy Award.
Cash quit using drugs in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he
attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to
lose himself and "just die", when he passed out on the floor. He reported to be exhausted and feeling at the end of
his rope when he felt God's presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion)
by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved
into Cash's mansion for a month to help him conquer his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to June at a concert at
the London Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later (on March 1) in
Franklin, Kentucky. June had agreed to marry Cash after he had 'cleaned up'. Rediscovering his Christian
faith, taking an "altar call" in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Rev. Jimmy
Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow. Cash chose this church over many larger celebrity churches in
the Nashville area because he said that there he was treated like just another parishioner and not a celebrity.
Cash felt great compassion for prisoners. He began performing concerts at various prisons
starting in the late 1960s. These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at
Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).
The Folsom Prison record was introduced by a rendition of his classic "Folsom Prison Blues",
while the San Quentin record included the crossover hit single "A Boy Named Sue", a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty
song that reached No. 1 on the country charts and No. 2 on the U.S. Top Ten pop charts. The AM versions of the
latter contained a couple of profanities which were edited out. The modern CD versions are unedited and uncensored
and thus also longer than the original vinyl albums, though they still retain the audience reaction overdubs of the
From 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC
network. The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode; the Carter Family and rockabilly legend Carl
Perkins were also part of the regular show entourage. However, Cash also enjoyed booking more contemporary
performers as guests; such notables included Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (who
appeared a record four times on his show), James Taylor, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton (then leading Derek and the
Dominos), and Bob Dylan.
Cash had met with Dylan in the mid 1960s and became closer friends when they were neighbors in
the late 1960s in Woodstock, New York. Cash was enthusiastic about reintroducing the reclusive Dylan to his
audience. Cash sang a duet with Dylan on Dylan's country album Nashville Skyline and also wrote the album's
Grammy-winning liner notes.
Another artist who received a major career boost from The Johnny Cash Show was songwriter Kris
Kristofferson, who was beginning to make a name for himself as a singer/songwriter. During a live performance of
Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", Cash refused to change the lyrics to suit network executives, singing
the song with its references to marijuana intact: "On a Sunday morning sidewalk / I'm wishin', Lord, that I was
By the early 1970s, he had crystallized his public image as "The Man in Black". He regularly
performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in contrast to the
costumes worn by most of the major country acts in his day: rhinestone suit and cowboy boots. In 1971, Cash wrote
the song "Man in Black", to help explain his dress code: "We're doing mighty fine I do suppose/In our streak of
lightning cars and fancy clothes/But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back/Up front there ought to
be a man in black."
He and his band had initially worn black shirts because that was the only matching color they
had among their various outfits. He wore other colors on stage early in his career, but he claimed to like wearing
black both on and off stage. He stated that, political reasons aside, he simply liked black as his on-stage color.
To this day, the United States Navy's winter blue service uniform is referred to by sailors as "Johnny Cashes," as
the uniform's shirt, tie, and trousers are solid black.
In the mid 1970s, Cash's popularity and number of hit songs began to decline, but his
autobiography (the first of two), titled Man in Black, was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. A second,
Cash: The Autobiography, appeared in 1997. His friendship with Billy Graham led to the production of a
film about the life of Jesus, The Gospel Road, which Cash co-wrote and narrated. The decade saw his religious
conviction deepening, and he made many evangelical appearances on Graham Crusade platforms around the world.
He also continued to appear on television, hosting an annual Christmas special on CBS throughout
the 1970s. Later television appearances included a role in an episode of Columbo. He also appeared with his wife on
an episode of Little House on the Prairie entitled "The Collection" and gave a performance as John Brown in the
1985 American Civil War television mini-series North and South.
He was friendly with every United States President starting with Richard Nixon. He was closest
with Jimmy Carter, who became a very close friend. He stated that he found all of them personally charming, noting
that this was probably essential to getting oneself elected.
When invited to perform at the White House for the first time in 1972, President Richard Nixon's
office requested that he play "Okie from Muskogee" (a satirical Merle Haggard song about people who despised
youthful drug users and war protesters) and "Welfare Cadillac" (a Guy Drake song that derides the integrity of
welfare recipients). Cash declined to play either and instead selected other songs, including "The Ballad of Ira
Hayes" (about a brave Native-American World War II veteran who was mistreated upon his return to Arizona), and his
own compositions, "What is Truth?" and "Man in Black". Cash claimed that the reasons for denying Nixon's song
choices were not knowing them and having fairly short notice to rehearse them, rather than any political
In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee at age forty-eight, but during the
1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, although he continued to tour successfully.
In the mid 1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The
Highwaymen, making two hit albums.
During this period, Cash appeared in a number of television films. In 1981, he starred in The
Pride of Jesse Hallam, winning fine reviews for a film that called attention to adult illiteracy. In the same year,
Cash appeared as a "very special guest star" in an episode of the Muppet Show. In 1983, he appeared as a heroic
sheriff in Murder in Coweta County, based on a real-life Georgia murder case, which co-starred Andy Griffith as his
nemesis. Cash had tried for years to make the film, for which he won acclaim.
Cash relapsed into addiction after being administered painkillers for a serious abdominal injury
in 1983 caused by an unusual incident in which he was kicked and wounded by an ostrich he kept on his farm.
At a hospital visit in 1988, this time to watch over Waylon Jennings (who was recovering from a
heart attack), Jennings suggested that Cash have himself checked into the hospital for his own heart condition.
Doctors recommended preventive heart surgery, and Cash underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both
recovered, although Cash refused to use any prescription painkillers, fearing a relapse into dependency. Cash later
claimed that during his operation, he had what is called a "near death experience". He said he had visions of
Heaven that were so beautiful that he was angry when he woke up alive.
Cash's recording career and his general relationship with the Nashville establishment were at an
all-time low in the 1980s. He realized that his record label of nearly 30 years, Columbia, was growing indifferent
to him and wasn't properly marketing him (he was "invisible" during that time, as he said in his autobiography).
Cash recorded an intentionally awful song to protest, a self-parody. "Chicken in Black" was about Cash's brain
being transplanted into a chicken. Ironically, the song turned out to be a larger commercial success than any of
his other recent material. Nevertheless, he was hoping to kill the relationship with the label before they did, and
it was not long after "Chicken in Black" that Columbia and Cash parted ways.
In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis,
and Carl Perkins to create the album Class of '55. This was not the first time he had teamed up with Lewis and
Perkins at Sun Studios. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while
Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the
four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which
were gospel songs, survived and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also
include Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", Pat Boone's "Don't Forbid Me", and Elvis doing an impersonation of
Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) singing "Don't Be Cruel".
In 1986, Cash published his only novel, Man in White, a book about Saul and his conversion to
become the Apostle Paul. He also recorded Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament in 1990.
After Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful
stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991 (see Johnny Cash discography).
In 1991, Cash sang lead vocals on a cover version of "Man in Black" for the Christian punk band
One Bad Pig's album I Scream Sunday.
His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity among a younger audience not
traditionally interested in country music. In 1993, he sang the vocal on U2's "The Wanderer" for their album
Zooropa. Although he was no longer sought after by major labels, Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin and
offered a contract with Rubin's American Recordings label, better known for rap and hard rock.
Under Rubin's supervision, he recorded the album American Recordings (1994) in his living room,
accompanied only by his guitar. That guitar was a Martin dreadnought guitar - one of many Cash played throughout
his career. The album featured several covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin and had much critical
and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash wrote that his reception at the
1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career. This was the beginning of a decade of music
industry accolades and surprising commercial success.
Cash and his wife appeared on a number of episodes of the popular television series Dr. Quinn,
Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour. The actress thought so highly of Cash that she later named one of her twin
sons after him. He lent his voice for a cartoon cameo in an episode of The Simpsons, with his voice as that of a
coyote that guides Homer on a spiritual quest. In 1996, Cash released a sequel to American Recordings,
Unchained, and enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which won a Grammy for Best
Country Album. Cash, believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography Man in Black, wrote
another autobiography in 1997 entitled Cash: The Autobiography.
June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at the age of seventy-three. June had told Cash to keep
working, so he continued to record and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside
Bristol, Virginia. At the July 5, 2003 concert (his last public performance), before singing "Ring of Fire", Cash
read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage:
“ The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and
the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess,
from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. ”
Cash died less than four months after his wife, on September 12, 2003, while hospitalized at
Baptist Hospital in Nashville. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in