Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. His parents Ray and Carrie could not agree upon a name for their son, only the initials J.R. That is what appears on his birth certificate. As the age of five, J.R. sang along with his family while working in the cotton fields of his family farm. When Cash was 12, his brother Jack, to whom he was especially close, was pulled into a table saw at the mill where he worked and nearly cut in two. After suffering for over a week, Jack died. On his deathbed, Cash remembers his brother speaking of seeing Heaven and angels. Cash would later say that he looked forward to meeting his brother in heaven.
When Cash enlisted in the Air Force, they would not accept initials as his name, despite the fact that J.R. is the name he was given. In order to get into the Air Force, he legally changed his name to John R. Cash, although family continued to call him J.R. While in the Air Force, Cash was assigned to the Security Services unit and performed the duty of morse code intercept operator for transmissions of the Russian Army while stationed in Landsberg, Germany. Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force on July 3, 1954.
After his discharge from the Air Force, Cash married Vivian Liberto, whom he had been dating during his training and continued to keep in touch with during his stint in Germany. The two moved to Memphis, Tennessee and Cash took a job selling appliances while he studied to be a radio announcer. One day he visited Sun Records and auditioned for legendary producer Sam Phillips. During the audition, Cash sang mostly gospel songs, which Phillips said were unmarketable. Johnny returned later with new songs and was signed to the label. His first recordings with the company, “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry” were released in 1955 and were moderately successful.
His next record, “Folsom Prison Blues”, brought him more success. The album itself made it into the top five on the country charts, and the single “I Walk the Line” went to number one on the country charts and broke the top 20 in the pop charts. Cash became one of the best selling artists for Sun Records and the first on the label to release a long playing record. Despite the successes, Cash began to feel constrained by Sun and left for Columbia Records in 1958. The deal with Columbia was a lucrative contract, and his first single with the company became one of his best selling tracks, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”.
In the early 60s, Cash’s career began to take off and he began to depend on amphetamines and barbiturates to keep up with his tour schedules. During this time he also began drinking heavily. His drug addictions and unrepentant attitude earned him an outlaw reputation, but Cash never had any serious troubles with the law. In 1965, he was arrested by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers thought he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but the drugs in his guitar case were prescription narcotics and amphetamines.
In June of the same year, Cash’s truck caught on fire and burned down over five hundred acres in Los Padres National Forest. The judge asked Cash why he did it, to which he responded, “I didn’t do it. My truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it”. The fire killed 49 of the forests 53 endangered Condors, but Cash was unmoved, telling the government, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards”. He was sued by the government and settled the case for $82,001.
His drug problem became increasingly destructive and Vivian divorced him in 1966. Cash finally quit using drugs in 1968 after attempting to commit suicide while heavily drugged. He walked farther and farther into the cave and planned to just die. Eventually he passed out on the floor. When he awoke he said he felt God’s presence and struggled out of the cave. In order to help him with his recovery, June Maybelle and Ezra Carter moved into his mansion for a month. Cash had toured with the Carters and became close to them. He proposed to June at a concert in Canada on February 22, 1968.
Cash got his own television show on ABC called “The Johnny Cash Show”, on which he booked contemporary performers of the time, such as Neil Young, James Taylor, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan.
His friends from country music, such as Carl Perkins and the Carter Family, were also a regular part of the show. Singer Kris Kristofferson appeared on the show, and Cash refused to cave into network pressure to have Kristofferson change the marijuana references in the lyrics to his song “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”.
By the mid seventies Cash’s popularity began to decline, but he continued to perform and appear on television. His career received a resurgence in the mid eighties when he joined Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwayman. The band recorded two hit albums. In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studio and recorded the album, “Class of 55” with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.
Cash continued to record into the nineties. In 1997, he was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. Cash was forced to cut his touring down because of the illness and was hospitalized in 1998. He died on September 13, 2003, and was buried next to his wife, June, who had died just four months earlier.