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
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 J.R.
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
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, Germany.
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
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 their duets.
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
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
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
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
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
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 originals.
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 stoned."
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 reason.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Hendersonville, Tennessee.