Johnny Cash was a writer, a poet. He used his words to understand himself better and gave his voice to the less fortunate. He sang on behalf of the underdogs, the sinners, and for anyone who was balancing between heaven and hell in search of redemption.
Cash’s career was a wild ride, and there are so many things about his life that are worth mentioning. From humble beginnings with papers in his guitars’ strings to becoming the timeless voice of country music – Johnny Cash was an incredible artist. Here’s a deep dive into the life of the man in black.
On February 26, 1932, Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, to a family of cotton farmers. When Cash was three years old, his dad was picked for a farming development program in Dyess, and the family received 20 acres of land, a house, a barn, and a mule. Life was wholesome in the country, and Johnny spent most of his days working out in the fields.
He would turn on the radio and spend hours under the sun singing tunes of all kinds. His mornings began with country, and by midafternoon it was all gospel and soul. He grew up on artists like The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills– musicians that uplifted his spirit and made his mind wander off to faraway lands.
Johnny Cash’s name rolls off your tongue smoothly and sounds like a well-picked stage name. And in truth, it is. But contrary to what many assume, Cash is the real part of it. He was actually born as J.R. because his parents couldn’t decide on a name. His mom wanted Rivers, like her maiden name, and his dad preferred Jay.
They settled for “J.R.,” and everyone called him that all through his childhood. It wasn’t until he joined the Air Force when he was 18 that his recruiter instructed him to change it from initials to a full lettered name. He chose John R. Cash, which inevitably turned into Johnny.
Johnny’s mom loved it when her boy sang to her. She admired his talent, and when he reached an age where his voice finally broke, she proudly told him, “God has his hand on you. Don’t ever forget your gift.” Cash’s dad, on the other hand, saw it as a complete waste of time.
Ray Cash was a tough and rugged man who rarely showed any affection towards his kids. He told Johnny, “You’re never going to make a living as long as you have music on your mind.” Funny how Johnny ended up proving him wrong, but his dad’s attitude at the time was understandable. The family was poor, and a music career sounded way out of reach.
Despite being poor, Johnny’s mom saved up some money and sent her boy to voice lessons. She knew his gift was something worth developing, and she nurtured it as best as she could. Incredibly, his teacher’s reaction to his voice was something you rarely hear a vocal instructor say.
After three lessons, she urged him, “Don’t ever take voice lessons again. Don’t let me or anyone change how you sing.” Blown away by his raw tone and the unique way in which he controlled his range, his teacher knew that any instruction would only ruin his pure talent.
Johnny’s older brother, Jack, was a lot more than a sibling to him. He was his best friend, his mentor, and his number one fan. He encouraged Johnny to sing and write and pursue his great love of music. But one Saturday morning, in the spring of 1944, Johnny and Jack’s relationship changed forever.
The brothers were supposed to go fishing together, but Jack decided to work and cut oak trees instead. Johnny begged him not to, and even their mom advised him to take the day off. But the family needed money, and Jack felt pressured to provide. A few hours later, Johnny’s dad came home with terrible news. Jack had suffered an accident and was cut open by a table saw.
Jack held on for about a week before he passed away. He was barely conscious but managed to let out the occasional word. When he did speak, it was of angels and a bright light heading his way. On the day of Jack’s burial, Johnny arrived early at the site to help workers dig his grave.
Johnny’s dad responded to the tragic event with resentment towards young Cash. He blamed him for Jack’s untimely death and stated that he was supposed to die, not his brother. The singer carried this burden with him for years and spent his whole life in search of redemption.
At the age of 18, Johnny joined the Air Force and began his training in Texas, where he studied Russian morse code. It was around that time that he met his first wife, Vivian Liberto. The two locked eyes in a roller-skating rink and dated for three short weeks before Cash was deported to Germany.
The couple wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during that time, and one of them included a precious gift from Johnny – an engagement ring. Cash felt as if he had found the love of his life and was eager to return home to settle down with her. But the couple had a good three years ahead of them before they would meet again.
At the outbreak of the Korean War, Cash found himself in Germany working as a Morse code interceptor. Away from his friends and family, Johnny felt terribly isolated in Landsberg Base. The one thing he brought with him was his guitar, which provided him and his fellow servicemen great relief. He began to write songs and even formed a band called The Landsberg Barbarians.
One of Johnny’s greatest hits was written during that time. He happened to watch the documentary Inside Folsom Prison, and it completely got to him. He spent half the night thinking of it and the other half passionately writing. He related to the prisoners and felt that although they committed terrible crimes, they’re still human and not so different from the rest of us.
When Cash returned from Germany, he felt that life on the farm just wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted to sing in front of audiences and for his voice to be heard on the radio. So, he married Vivian, bought a cheap car, and drove off to Memphis, where he began to try and break into the industry.
His brother, Roy, worked in the area as a mechanic and introduced Johnny to two of his coworkers who happened to be musicians – Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. The three of them hit it off and spent the evenings writing, playing music, and eventually formed Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. Johnny recalled this humble beginning as one of the best times of his life.
In the mid-1950s, the newly formed band decided to audition in front of Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. Johnny defined himself as a gospel singer, and Phillips was somewhat skeptical that he could market that type of sound well. So, he discouraged them from going in that direction and pushed them towards the “sinful” rock and roll instead.
Phillips knew right off the bat that Johnny’s voice was something else. His deep, bass-baritone carried heavy laziness to it but with a powerful undertone that was hard to overlook. He agreed to record them, and the trio released their first song, Hey Porter. The boom-chick-a-boom sound that accompanied the tune became one of Cash’s famous trademarks, and the song’s release proved to be the beginning of an amazing career.
For four blooming years with Sun Records, Johnny released hit after hit after hit. He described it as a joyful period of growth in which he was lucky enough to collaborate with the greatest voices of the time. He sang with huge stars like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who were all out there driving audiences crazy.
One December morning in 1956, Elvis jumped over to Sam Phillip’s studio and ran into Carl, who was recording there at the time with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. Cash happened to be there as well and that spontaneous get-together turned into a memorable jam session known as The Million Dollar Quartet. Definitely a pivotal moment in rock and roll history!
Johnny was doing 200-mile rides back and forth from his concerts, day after day, and it was getting difficult to keep it together. Lo and behold, Cash happened to run into the magical (yet illusive and deadly) power of stimulants. He discovered that one little pill gave him all the energy he needed to storm out on stage and make it through the whole night.
But stories like these rarely end with one pill, and gradually, Johnny was taking up to 100 a day. His abuse of amphetamines and barbiturates didn’t worry anyone at first. His friends would even joke about his erratic behavior and facial tics. Even more concerning was the fact that doctors were prescribing him these pills. The post-war period was definitely one of great confusion and people’s views on medicine were pretty off.
Cash had a wife and four daughters waiting for him back home: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Sadly, he wasn’t a functioning dad by any means. Graduations, school plays, proms? He never found time for any of them them in his tight schedule. His wife struggled with feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear. She knew Johnny was slipping away from her.
His destructive dependence on drugs made everything so much worse, and Vivian begged him to get a grip. But Johnny was way over his head by that point, and when it came down to it, he felt like he belonged on the road, not in a house playing the role of a family man. In 1966, Vivian filed for a divorce. Enough was enough.
Johnny’s reckless behavior could probably fill up enough pages to write a book. This unrestrained singer smashed up hotel rooms, threw his mic across stages, ran his car into a utility pole, and had numerous encounters with the police. He was arrested a total of seven times and was even cuffed for, weirdly enough – flower picking.
On one of his drunken night strolls, Cash ended up in Starkville, Mississippi, where he trespassed onto someone’s lawn and picked up flowers from their garden. Police arrived at the scene and locked him up. Johnny cussed and screamed and kicked his jail cell all through the night. And that’s the – somewhat ridiculous – story of his song Starkville City Jail.
The transition from Sun Records to Columbia was hard for Johnny. Sam Phillips was the first person to believe in him, and he owed his career to the producer. But when he was approached by Columbia’s manager, Don Law, he knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And he was right. His career with Columbia reached new heights, and his songs peaked #1 on the charts. Hits like Ring of Fire, A Boy Named Sue and Don’t Take Your Guns to Town were all over radio stations and his reputation grew by the minute. He sold millions upon millions of records with Columbia and worked with them for 26 years.
When Ring of Fire came out in 1963, the song’s words hit close to home for Johnny. He felt that he was being swallowed by his desires and that he had zero control over his drug intake. But the song wasn’t really about drugs, and it was actually co-written by someone else, June Carter, a singer who was secretly burning from the fiery love she felt for Cash.
The two met in 1956, after Cash’s debut performance at the Grand Ole Opry. When asked about their first encounter, June couldn’t recall much of it, other than that she was fascinated by his “black eyes that shone like agates.” Cash and Carter were both married at the time, and for many years they toured together as just friends.
Well, Johnny didn’t always wear black, so how did this nickname stick to him? It all began in his early days with the Tennessee Two. They wanted to match on stage and the only clothing they had in common was a black shirt. So he spent a lot of time performing in that color but you would often catch him offstage wearing lighter clothes.
His album covers show him in all different types of shades and designs: blue denim, stripes, and even a purple suit. But his reputation as Man in Black stuck to him, and he fully embraced it. He explained his dress code in a song, “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, living on the hopeless, hungry side of town.”
Johnny’s 1964 album Ballads of the American Indians focused on the painful history that many Americans preferred to ignore. He spoke out about the hardships of a group of people who were helpless in the face of the white newcomers. Johnny was ahead of his time, an open-minded artist that loved to represent the underdog. But his bravery came with a cost.
Columbia records didn’t want to release the album because they believed it would cause too much noise… which it obviously did. Many stations refused to play the songs, and Cash received some vicious backlash for his attempt to speak up about a controversial topic. In response, Johnny paid for a full-page ad on Billboard Magazine, where he chastised people and called them “gutless.”
One summer day in 1965, Johnny and his nephew Damon Fielder were out on a fishing trip in Los Padres National Forest in California. Disastrously, their innocent vacation ended up in a fire that burnt over 500 acres and endangered the forest’s wildlife. Johnny claimed that an oil leak in his camper started the whole mess, but his heavy drug use at the time made it hard to believe his story.
In any case, Cash was sued by the government, and when the judge asked why he did it, he jokingly responded, “I didn’t do it. My truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” Needless to say, his answer wasn’t too convincing and Cash paid $82,000 for the mess he made. As for the endangered condors? Johnny claimed, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.”
In the fall of 1967, Johnny stumbled his way into Nickajack cave in Tennessee. Spaced out on his usual cocktail of amphetamines and barbiturates, Johnny had no intention whatsoever to leave that cave alive. His career was going nowhere, and his personal life had sadly crumbled to ruins. People called him a drunken, washed out has-been and he truly felt like this was the end of it.
Johnny was on the brink of death, crying and praying when suddenly, he felt a presence. He was overcome by a sense of clarity and sobriety and he knew he had to live. He followed the light and crawled to the entrance of the cave and that’s when he saw her – June Carter was standing outside waiting for him with a basket of food and something to drink.
Johnny’s moment of awakening in Nickajack cave changed his life forever. He knew that if he were to continue as an artist, his next project would have to be something of value to the world. And, in 1968, Cash recorded his iconic album in Folsom Prison. A throwback to his young years as a soldier, Johnny felt that he related to the incarcerated men in the audience.
He recorded two live albums in prison, one in Folsom and one year later in San Quentin, both of which were his most cherished and best-selling albums in his career. The songs on the album were designed for the prisoners’ needs, and they were just the right words that they longed to hear. “I ain’t seen no sunshine since I don’t know when…”
Johnny proposed to June in front of an audience of 7,000 people at one of their shows in Canada’s London Ice House. He must have been very confident to pop the question like that in front of the masses, but their love was so profound that he knew she would agree just by looking into her eyes.
They expanded their family in 1970 when they had John Carter Cash Jr., and Johnny saw it as his opportunity to finally redeem himself as a dad. He was present in his son’s life and dedicated the time to pick him up from school and play with him around the house. The ’70s might not have been a time of hit songs, but he was finally living the peaceful life he had wished for.
In 1969 Johnny hosted his own show on ABC. Sober and clear-minded, Cash opened each episode with his warm greeting, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He invited musicians to play on stage and interviewed rising stars from different areas of pop culture. Johnny claimed he had a lot of freedom on the show, and he made some brave choices when it came to his guests.
He partnered with artists from all races and wanted his show to be a platform where music was the tying thread of it all. He didn’t care what others thought, and that was the beauty of his art. The show ran for 58 episodes until it was taken off the air due to the Prime-Time Access Rule that forced all networks to cut 30 minutes from their nightly schedules.
Family life allowed Cash to contemplate his Christian roots, and his faith grew stronger as the years passed. He even earned a degree in theology and was ordained as a minister. Clearly, Johnny was a changed man, but the public wasn’t too happy about it. His concerts were no longer the same, and fans weren’t interested in his talks on Jesus Christ.
His record sales hit rock bottom, and his managers were understandably upset. They wanted him to sing more about prisons and less about the church. But Johnny found there was more to his life than hitting the charts, and he enjoyed the freedom he felt to finally speak his truth.
Glen Sherley was a prisoner in Folsom Prison who was sentenced to three years for armed robbery. He wrote the lyrics to Greystone Chapel, an emotional song that Cash performed in front of the prisoners. The two became good friends, and Johnny felt like the man deserved a second chance at life. In 1971, Glen was paroled, and Cash took him under his wing.
They performed together for about a year and a half before things started to go downhill. Freedom outside the cell was too much for Glen, and he spiraled into old habits. Cash ended up firing him and, a few years later, Glen took his own life. The responsibility he felt for messing up his life again was simply too much.
The ’80s was a tough decade for Cash. He relapsed, was fired from Columbia Records, and his marriage with June (like any long marriage) had seen better days. But in 1992, Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin, who offered him an exciting new chance to find his voice again in life.
Rick said to him, “I would like you to sit in my living room with a guitar and two microphones and just sing to your heart’s content, everything you ever wanted to record.” Cash agreed and released his 81st album with the help of Rick’s record label. The producer enjoyed his time with the legendary singer and described Cash as “shy and quiet but a wise, wise man.”
Originally written by rock band Nine Inch Nails, Hurt is a song so dark and piercing that Cash’s raspy voice was basically made for it. But Trent Reznor, the lead singer of the band, wasn’t too happy about the cover at first. He said the lyrics came from a very personal place, and “it felt like watching my girlfriend f**k somebody else.”
But after hearing Cash’s outstanding cover, he completely changed his mind: “I wrote some words in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”
2003 was the year both June and Johnny passed away. June slipped into a coma in May, after undergoing heart surgery, and Johnny passed away in September from diabetes related respiratory issues. The few months he spent without Jane were a struggle for the old singer. According to his daughter, he cried himself to sleep every night.
Since his passing, people have commemorated Johnny with films and museums, and countless tributes. His album, American V: A Hundred Highways, was released in 2006 and charted number one on the Billboard top 200. Johnny’s voice isn’t easily forgotten, and his lyrics are timeless.
At the time of his death, the singer was worth a whopping $60 million. Clearly, his hard work never went unnoticed, and people gladly spent their hard-earned money to see and hear this performer sing live.
Johnny tried his hand in acting throughout the ’70s. His most successful appearance was probably in the 1971 film A Gunfight, where he co-starred with Kirk Douglas. But the work closest to his heart was a film he produced himself called Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus. It didn’t do very well and was mainly popular within religious crowds, but Cash was over the moon with it.
Throughout the ’80s, he appeared as a guest star here and there, but any dreams of becoming a movie star pretty much faded away. His acting career was short-lived, but honestly, Cash didn’t need a script or the silver screen to grab people’s attention. His brilliant lyrics and performances were more than enough.
Cash’s lyrics are incredibly moving, and you can tell that a talented writer stands behind those words. His love of writing followed him all through his life. He wrote poems as a kid and creative stories as a teenager. He even spent his time in the Air Force jotting down his thoughts.
He wrote two autobiographies, Man in Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997). His fictional work includes a novel he published in 1986 called Man in White, a story that deals with the religious transformation of Paul the Apostle. It wasn’t a huge success, but at that point in his life, Johnny couldn’t have cared less. He was proud of his work, and that was enough.
Johnny Cash’s personal life was one wild ride, and his relationship with June Carter played a huge part in it. Their love was messy, complicated, profound, and larger than life. Here is their incredible story: