Biography of Johnny Cash, American Singer-Songwriter

Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash (February 26, 1932–September 12, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter and a legend of country music. He was known for his outlaw image and all-black outfits. Cash's signature song was "Folsom Prison Blues," which he recorded in 1955 and later performed, famously, at Folsom State Prison in California.

Fast Facts: Johnny Cash

  • Known For: Cash was a country music star who also recorded rock and rock, folk, and gospel music.
  • Born: February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas
  • Parents: Carrie Cloveree and Ray Cash
  • Died: September 12, 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee
  • Spouse(s): Vivian Liberto (m. 1954–1966), June Carter (m. 1968–2003)
  • Children: Rosanne, John, Cindy, Tara, Kathy

Early Life

Johnny Cash was born John R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932. He grew up near Memphis in Dyess, a planned community constructed as part of the New Deal. Cash was first introduced to country music through the radio, and he began playing his own songs at the age of 12. When Cash was still a child, his beloved older brother Jack was killed in a sawmill accident. He was just 15 years old, and it took Jack more than a week to succumb to his wounds.

The accident had a profound impact on Johnny Cash's life. "Jack has stayed with me," the singer wrote in his 1997 autobiography "Cash." "He's been there in those songs we sang at his funeral...and those songs have sustained and renewed me my whole life...They're powerful, those songs. At the time they've been my only way back, the only way out of the dark, bad places."

Military Service

After receiving his high school diploma in 1950 and briefly working in a Detroit auto plant, Cash enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed in Landsberg, Germany, during the Korean War. He remained there until 1954, when he was honorably discharged. Cash returned to San Antonio, Texas, where he had received his military training, and married his first wife Vivian Liberto in 1954.

The pair relocated to Memphis. Cash took a course in radio announcing (he had worked as a DJ in Germany). He also formed a three-piece band with guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant (later known as the Tennessee Two), that played shows in the city at night.

Sun Records and Stardom

In 1955, the aspiring country singer landed an audition with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Cash sang gospel tunes, which failed to impress Phillips. Cash returned later with a secular song he had written, reportedly "Hey Porter." It won the young singer a coveted recording contract with the man who had made Elvis famous. By July, Cash had released his first single, "Hey Porter" (the B-side was "Cry! Cry! Cry!"). The record was well received, debuting at No. 14 on the country charts.

The song's popularity secured him a place on the popular broadcast the Louisiana Hayride, and in 1956 Cash released his classic "Folsom Prison Blues" for Sun. But it was Cash's next single, "I Walk the Line," that was his breakthrough. The song became a No. 1 country hit that even crossed over into the pop charts.

The hits kept coming, and in 1957 Cash appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in all black. His attire earned him the nickname that would follow him through the years: The Man in Black. That same year he released his first long-playing album, "Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar." The release was a rarity at Sun Records, which concentrated on singles.

With his star rising and most of his musical profits landing in Sam Phillips's pocket, Cash left Sun in 1958 to join the roster at Columbia Records. There, he released one of the biggest singles of his career, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." The next year he released a gospel album, "Hymns by Johnny Cash."

Drugs and Marriage

Cash toured heavily throughout the early 1960s, playing as many as 300 shows a year. He began taking amphetamines to keep up with the pace of his life. For a spell, he was roommates in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who also had a problem with pills.

During this period, Cash had many run-ins with the law. While on tour in 1965, he was busted by a narcotics squad that discovered a vast store of prescriptions pills in his guitar case. He was also accused of starting a forest fire in California. In Starkville, Mississippi, he was arrested for picking flowers on private property.

As his drug addiction worsened, Cash broke up with his first wife Vivian. By 1963, he had moved to New York City, effectively abandoning his family.

In 1968, Cash conquered his addiction with the help of religion and June Carter, who he married that year. (Cash had first met June when he toured with the Carter Family in the early 1960s.) Although Cash would have relapses in the future, the worst was behind him.

Folsom Prison and 'The Johnny Cash Show'

In 1968, Johnny Cash performed a concert at Folsom State Prison in California. The live recording of the performance, "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," became one of his best-selling albums. It cemented Cash's image as a counterculture figure. His live version of "Folsom Prison Blues," with the screams of the incarcerated cheering him on, became a No. 1 hit on the country charts.

Cash followed up the album with "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" in 1969. That same year he moved into television, premiering "The Johnny Cash Show" on ABC. His first guest on the variety program was Bob Dylan, with whom he'd recently worked with on Dylan's album "Nashville Skyline." During the run of the show, Cash served as a cross-generational musical ambassador. While his longtime fans would be familiar enough with guests such as Carl Perkins, Merle Haggard, and Roger Miller, Cash also welcomed new folk acts such as Melanie, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The show ran until 1971, broadcasting 58 episodes in all.

In addition to releasing hits like the politically charged "Man in Black," the love song "Flesh and Blood," and Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" in the 1970s, Cash also championed many social causes.

Career Decline and American Recordings

By the late 1970s, Cash had dipped precipitously in popularity. As if to announce that his career was over, Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. He was the youngest performer to be given that honor.

In 1985, Cash formed The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. The outlaw ensemble released their first album to modest sales. Increasingly, Cash found his traditional brand of country music out of favor in Nashville. His ouster from country radio became complete in the 1990s when New Country acts like Garth Brooks ruled the airwaves.

A turning point in Cash's career came when he signed with American Records in 1993. With a stripped-down sound and producer Rick Rubin at the helm, Cash released "American Recordings" to general acclaim. His future collaborations with Rubin were received just as warmly, and earned him a new, younger audience; he met them halfway by covering songs by Nick Cave, Beck, and Tom Petty.


In 2002, Cash recorded a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," which he released on "American IV: The Man Comes Around." It became one of his biggest successes, buoyed by a video that appeared to be a reckoning with his own hell-raising past. The video featured his wife June Carter Cash who, in 2003, died following heart surgery.

Cash was devastated by the loss, and quickly followed her. On September 12, 2003, he died from complications from diabetes. Cash had been diagnosed earlier with Shy-Drager syndrome, and toward the end of his life he experienced numerous health complications.


Cash is one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and in 2005 his life became the subject of the Oscar-winning film "I Walk the Line." Bob Dylan was among those who praised him after his death:

"If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul...Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he'll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet—especially those persons—and that is forever."


  • Cash, Johnny, and Patrick Carr. "Cash: The Autobiography." Harper, 2007.
  • Hilburn, Robert. "Johnny Cash: The Life." Back Bay Books, 2014.