The Man in Black is one of country and American music’s most well-known personalities. A storyteller as much as a singer, his gospel and outlaw country songs have struck a chord with fans and fellow musicians for decades. His iconically simple style of music, performing and dress do not reflect a man of simplicity, however: Johnny Cash’s life was far from uncomplicated.
“I think it speaks to our basic fundamental feelings, you know. Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.”Johnny Cash
Born to cotton sharecroppers in Arkansas, John R. Cash worked the fields alongside his parents and siblings. His exposure to music started early and was part of the everyday routine of the Cash family: his mother sang folk songs and hymns, and he picked up the influences of work songs in the fields. By 12, he was learning to play guitar and write his own songs.
After high school, he spent a short stint in the factories of Detroit before enlisting in the Air Force. He met his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while in training in Texas, and married her after returning from a tour of service in Germany. They settled in Memphis, where Cash first began trying to solidify a career in music, by way of odd jobs like being an appliance salesman. He and Liberto had four daughters, one of whom was future musician Roseanne Cash.
In 1955, Cash and his band, the Tennessee Two, began recording for Sam Phillips, the owner of the now-legendary Sun label in Memphis. Their first hit was “Cry, Cry, Cry,” and they quickly followed that with the even bigger “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1956. One of Cash’s most well-known songs, “I Walk the Line” came that same year. After hitting the number one spot, “Walk the Line” stayed on the charts for 43 weeks. At Sun, he became friends with his label mates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, all future superstars and icons in their own rights.
Cash first performed on the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.
He moved to California in 1958 to sign with Columbia Records, hoping for more freedom to pursue different types of music, including gospel. He released his famous songs “Ring of Fire” and “I Got Stripes,” among others, during this time. He began touring heavily, becoming a popular act during the folk revival of the 1960’s.
Also during this time, he descended into a serious addiction problem. His first marriage dissolved and became distant from his family. His duet partner, June Carter, became an important figure of stability during his recovery and by 1968 he and June were married. June was a member of the Carter Sisters, the second generation band of the historic Carter Family.
In addition to regaining control over his personal life, Cash experienced a career renaissance around the same time with his famous live album, At Folsom Prison. He also had his own variety show on ABC, The Johnny Cash Show.
He retired from touring in 1997 after being diagnosed with a degenerative nervous system disorder.
In later years, Cash was a well-respected artist not only in the country community, but the rock and roll community as well. He collaborated with Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Petty. He also worked on a famous group of recordings with rock producer Rick Rubin in which Cash covered famous American songs and released a few last originals. These recordings were released in volumes up to and after his death.
Johnny Cash died in 2003 at age 71 of complications from diabetes, only five months after his beloved June passed away. His legacy, however, strongly prevails.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and made a member of the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. An award-winning biopic, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, was also released in 2005. Cash’s memory also lives on at The Johnny Cash museum in Nashville.