Biography: Johnny Cash

Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

As a country, rock, and gospel superstar, few people have changed western music quite like the Man in Black.


The Man in Black was born as John R. Cash.


Born the fourth of seven children in 1932 to poor sharecroppers in Arkansas, Johnny Cash grew up working cotton fields and singing gospel alongside his family.  Cash enlisted in the US Air Force in 1950 where he was trained in San Antonio and then sent off to Germany to work as a radio operator (interestingly, it's said that he was the first American operator to pick up the news of Joseph Stalin's death).  After being honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant in 1954, the 22-year-old married his sweetheart Vivian and booked it to Memphis to pursue a career in music.


Here is a picture of Cash and his first wife Vivian.


After almost a year of playing locally, Cash got a record deal with Sun Records and by the end 1955 he had released his first batch of singles, including his first charting single "Cry, Cry, Cry" as well as the hits "So Doggone Lonesome" and "Folsom Prison Blues".  1956 saw a huge jump in his career as he released his first #1 singles, "I Walk the Line" and "There You Go".  Towards the end of the year, Cash was involved in an impromptu recording session with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley that would later be famously released as the Million Dollar Quartet.  1957 would see the release of his debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, which featured his successful singles and was Sun Records first LP.


This was the cover art for Cash's first album.


The last two years of the 50's would see twelve Top 10 Country hits for the young musician, including 3 #1 singles ("Ballad of a Teenage Queen", "Guess Things Happen That Way", and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town").  Cash would also start recording for Columbia Records, although Sun Records would continue releasing some of his material for several years.  Unfortunately, this would also be the period that hard drugs like heroin entered his life; however, this would also be the time that Cash started playing for prison inmates.  In fact, on January 1st, 1958, the 26 year-old Cash would play his first "inmate concert" at San Quentin State Prison, which included a 20-year-old Merle Haggard in attendance who would be changed by the experience.   By the early 60's, Cash had acted in a crime film called Five Minutes to Live and was regularly touring with the Carter Family.  He had several Top 20 and Top 10 Country hits during this time, but it wouldn't be until 1963 that he saw his next #1 hit, "Ring of Fire".  Written by his future wife June Carter and songwriter Merle Kilgore, and originally recorded by Anita Carter, the single would stay at the #1 spot for seven straight weeks and is considered by many to be the quintessential Johnny Cash song.



I Walk the Line cemented Cash's place as a country music superstar.


1964 would see the release of the first #1 Cash album, I Walk the Line, which included another #1 single, "Understand Your Man".  Although he had been cultivating a 'romantic outlaw' image since the late fifties, it would be 1965 before Cash would start getting into real trouble with the law.  After spending a night in jail in May for trespassing and being fined over $125,000 in June for starting a forest fire, he would be caught with several thousand prescription pills hidden in his guitar case in El Paso by narcotics agents in October (for which he would be given a suspended sentence).  Although he remained commercially viable as an artist, his drug use had spiraled out of control and by 1966 he would officially be divorced by his wife.  In 1967, he would be arrested again in Georgia for drug possession.


Cash had played prison concerts a full decade before At Folsom Prison.


1968 would start out incredibly rocky: although Cash was still releasing Top 10 country singles, the drug abuse and several cancelled concerts had led many critics to believe that he was on the way out.  Things would get their darkest with a suicide attempt at the Nickajack Cave in Tennessee.  After failing at taking his own life, Cash had a change of heart and retired to his mansion along with the Carter family to take hold of his drug addiction.  He cleaned himself up, found Jesus, and on March 1st he and June Carter would be married.  Fate had more in store for the 36-year-old as his first live album, At Folsom Prison, shot straight up to the #1 Country album and the #13 Pop album - as well as becoming one of the most beloved albums of all time (of any genre!).  A follow-up album, At San Quentin, would be released the following year and would become the #1 album in America.  Both albums would eventually be certified "3x Multi-Platinum", meaning they sold at least 3 million units each.  The Man in Black was finally on top.


Johnny was often accompanied by June on The Johnny Cash Show.


Not even including his #1 album, 1969 was a seminal year for Cash and his crew.  Another #1 country single, "A Boy Named Sue", would shoot up to #2 on the Pop Charts.  He landed his own television program, The Johnny Cash Show, which would feature music legends like Louis Armstrong, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan among many others.  The show would run until 1971 and would help solidify his image as the Man in Black to the public as he was always wearing black clothing to show solidarity with the disenfranchised peoples across America.  The 1970 Hello, I'm Johnny Cash and 1971 Man in Black albums would also shoot up to the #1 spot on the country charts along with two singles, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "Flesh and Blood".  He also met with President Richard Nixon in 1970 and from then would befriend every American president for the rest of his life.


Cash advocated prison reform to President Nixon.


By the mid-70s, Cash's popularity was once again waning.  In 1973, he co-wrote The Gospel Road, a film about the life of Jesus, as well as the soundtrack.  He released a best-selling autobiography, The Man in Black, in 1975, but had not been in Top 10 country charts since the 1973 album Any Old Wind That Blows. The title track of his 1976 One Piece at a Time album would reach the #1 country single spot, but it would be his last single in that spot as a solo artist.  Unfortunately, by 1977 Cash would fall back into drug use and his music would suffer even as he was admitted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.


The Highwaymen is often considered the super-group of super-groups.


In 1980, Cash would be the youngest inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame at the age of 48.  However, the drug use once again spiraled into addiction and in 1983 he would enter the Betty Ford Clinic for rehabilitation.  Upon his release, he would begin touring with his friends Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings and eventually the super-group "the Highwaymen" was born.  Their debut album, Highwayman, would be released to great acclaim and the album, as well as the title track which was originally penned by songwriter Jimmy Webb, would climb to the very top of the country charts.  While not touring with the rest of the Highwaymen, Cash partnered with other Sun Records alumni Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to release the Class of '55 album.  He also wrote a novel called Man in White which was an account of the apostle Paul's conversion to Christianity.


American Recordings earned Cash a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy.


Cash ultimately left Columbia Records and had a short, unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records until 1991.  Fortunately, Cash took a chance and partnered with the American Recordings label who was known for rock, metal, and rap groups like Slayer, ZZ Top, Tommy Petty, the Black Crowes, and Sir Mix-A-Lot.  This rocketed his popularity with groups who were traditionally not known for their love of country music and completely revived his career - he was even admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.  He began playing and recording with bands like U2 and Brooks and Dunn as well as releasing a new album, American Recordings, which comprised mostly of covers that went on to win the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  He also got back into acting, appearing on television programs like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and The Simpsons.  He also teamed up with Tommy Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fleetwood Mac stars Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood for an album simply named UnchainedUnchained went on to win the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album.  He also released a second auto-biography, Cash: The Autobiography, in 1997.


Cash performed his last concert at the Carter Ranch in Hiltons, VA.


Cash, now in his mid 60s, was diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome in 1997.  He continued releasing best-selling material, including his acclaimed cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt", but his health slowly left him.  June Carter Cash, the love of his life and wife of 35 years, passed away in May of 2003 at the age of 73.  Cash himself played his last concert on July 5th, 2003, closing with "Ring of Fire" and a short statement about his love for June.  He died on September 12th, 2003.  While the official cause of death was complications from diabetes, many believe that a broken heart was the true cause.  Several posthumous albums would be released, including the #1 American V: A Hundred Highways.  His life would be portrayed in the blockbuster, award-winning film Walk the Line in 2005 as well as parodied in the 2007 cult favorite Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.


Few romances were as legendary as the one between Johnny and June Cash.


Few stand as tall and proud in American music as Johnny Cash.  The Man in Black not only touched billions around the globe with his music, he was instrumental in the founding of musical genres like rockabilly and country rock.  His songs have been covered by thousands of artists around the world and just as many people in the music industry today owe their careers in part to him.  In addition to the already-mentioned accolades, he was the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and ranked as the #31 Greatest Artist of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine.  To learn more, visit the official Johnny Cash website here.



(1957) Johnny Cash and His Hot and Blue Guitar

(1958) Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

(1959) The Fabulous Johnny Cash - #19

(1959) Greatest!

(1959) Songs of Our Soil

(1959) Hymns by Johnny Cash

(1960) Sings Hank Williams

(1960) Ride This Train

(1960) Now, There Was a Song!

(1961) Now Here's Johnny Cash

(1962) The Sound of Johnny Cash

(1962) All Aboard the Blue Train

(1962) Hymns from the Heart

(1963) Blood, Sweat, and Tears

(1964) The Original Sun Sound of Johnny Cash

(1964) I Walk the Line - #1

(1964) Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian - #2

(1965) Orange Blossom Special - #3

(1965) Sings the Ballads of the True West

(1966) Everybody Loves a Nut - #5

(1966) Happiness Is You - #9

(1968) From Sea to Shining Sea - #9

(1968) At Folsom Prison - #1

(1969) At San Quentin - #1

(1969) The Holy Land - #6

(1970) Hello, I'm Johnny Cash - #1

(1970) The Johnny Cash Show - #1

(1971) Man in Black - #1

(1972) A Thing Called Love - #2

(1972) America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song - #3

(1973) Any Old Wind That Blows - #5

(1973) Pa Osteraker

(1973) The Gospel Road - #12

(1974) Ragged Old Flag - #16

(1974) Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me - #48

(1975) The Johnny Cash Children's Album

(1975) John R. Cash

(1975) Look at Them Beans - #38

(1975) Strawberry Cake - #33

(1975) Sings Precious Moments

(1976) One Piece at a Time - #2

(1977) The Last Gunfighter Ballad - #29

(1977) The Rambler - #31

(1978) I Would Like to See You Again - #23

(1978) Gone Girl

(1979) Silver - #28

(1979) A Believer Sings the Truth - #43

(1980) Rockabilly Blues

(1980) Sings with the BC Goodpasture Christian School

(1981) The Baron - #24

(1982) The Adventures of Johnny Cash

(1983) Johnny 99

(1983) Koncert V Praze

(1984) I Believe

(1985) Rainbow

(1985) Highwayman (with the Highwaymen) - #1

(1986) Believe in Him

(1987) Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town - #36

(1988) Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series

(1988) Water from the Wells of Home - #48

(1990) Boom Chicka Boom

(1990) Highwayman 2 (with the Highwaymen) - #4

(1991) The Mystery of Life - #70

(1992) Return to the Promised Land

(1994) American Recordings - #23

(1995) The Road Goes On Forever (with the Highwaymen) - #42

(1996) Unchained - #26

(2000) American III: Solitary Man - #11

(2002) American IV: The Man Comes Around - #2

(2002) At Madison Square Garden

(2003) Unearthed (posthumously) - #33

(2004) My Mother's Hymn Book (posthumously) - #27

(2005) Live from Austin, TX (posthumously)

(2006) American V: A Hundred Highways (posthumously) - #1

(2010) American VI: Ain't No Grave (posthumously) - #2


Songs on KBEC 1390:

"A Boy Named Sue" - #1

"A Thing Called Love" - #2

"Any Old Wind That Blows" - #3

"Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (with Rosanne Cash and the Everly Brothers) - #45

"Daddy Sang Bass" - #1

"Don't Take Your Guns to Town" - #1

"Flesh and Blood" - #1

"Folsom Prison Blues" - #1

"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" - #2

"Guess Things Happen" - #1

"Highwayman" (with the Highwaymen) - #1

"Hurt" - #56

"I Got Stripes" - #4

"I Walk the Line" - #1

"In the Jailhouse Now" - #8

"Jackson" (with June Cash) - #2

"Lady Came From Baltimore" - #14

"Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" (with June Cash) - #6

"One Piece at a Time" - #1

"Oney" - #2

"Orange Blossom Special" - #3

"Ring of Fire" - #1

"Rosanna's Going Wild" - #2

"Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" - #1

"The Baron" - #10

"The One on the Right Is on the Left" - #2

"There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" (with Waylon Jennings) - #2

"Understand Your Man" - #1