Johnny Cash, born J.R. Cash, (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was a Grammy Award-winning American country singer. Cash is widely considered to be one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century.
Cash was known for his deep, distinctive voice, the boom-chick-a-boom or ”freight train” sound of his Tennessee Two backing band, his demeanor, and his dark clothing, which earned him the nickname”The Man in Black”. He traditionally started his concerts with the introduction ”Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Much of Cash’s music, especially that of his later career, echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption. His signature songs include “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring Of Fire”, “That Old Wheel” (a duet with Hank Williams Jr.), “Cocaine Blues”, and “Man In Black”. He also recorded several humorous songs, such as “One Piece At A Time”, “The One On The Right Is On The Left”, “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “A Boy Named Sue”; rock-and-roll numbers such as “Get Rhythm”; and various railroad songs, such as “Rock Island Line” and “Orange Blossom Special”.
He sold over 90 million albums in his nearly fifty-year career and came to occupy a ”commanding position in music history”.
In 1954, the couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances, while studying to be a radio announcer. At night, he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash eventually won over Phillips with new songs delivered in his early frenetic style. His first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry,” were released in 1955 and met with reasonable success on the country hit parade.
Cash’s next record, Folsom Prison Blues, made the country Top 5, and “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts, also making it into the pop charts Top 20. Following “I Walk the Line” was Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues,” recorded in July 1957. In 1957, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun’s most consistently best-selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Elvis Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Jerry Lee Lewis. The following year, Cash left the label to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” would become one of his biggest hits.
In the early 60s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, June and Helen. June later recalled admiring Johnny from afar, during these tours.
As his career was taking off in the early 1960s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction.
Although in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. The song was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and originally performed by Carter’s sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had come to him in a dream. The song describes the personal hell Carter went through as she wrestled with her forbidden love for Cash (they were both married to other people at the time) and as she dealt with Cash’s personal “ring of fire” (drug dependency and alcoholism).
The mid 1960s saw Cash release a number of concept albums, including Ballads Of The True West (1965), an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash’s spoken narration, and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at this point, however, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and cancelled performances.
In 1967, Cash’s duet with Carter, “Jackson”, won a Grammy Award.
Cash quit using drugs in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave. June, Maybelle, and Eck Carter moved into Cash’s mansion for a month to help him defeat his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to Carter at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later in Franklin, Kentucky. June had agreed to marry Cash after he had ‘cleaned up’. Rediscovering his Christian faith, taking an “altar call” in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, Cash chose this church over many larger, celebrity churches in the Nashville area because he said that there he was treated like just another parishioner and not a celebrity.
Cash advocated prison reform at his July 1972 meeting with U.S. president Richard NixonFrom 1969 to 1971, Cash starred in his own television show, The Johnny Cash Show, on the ABC network. The singing group The Statler Brothers opened up for him in every episode. Other notable artists who appeared on his show included Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, James Taylor, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan.
Cash’s recording career and his general relationship with the Nashville establishment were at an all-time low in the 1980s. He realized that his record label of nearly 30 years, Columbia, was growing indifferent to him and wasn’t properly marketing him (he was “invisible” during that time, as he said in his autobiography). Cash recorded an intentionally awful song to protest, a self-parody. “Chicken in Black” was about Johnny’s brain being transplanted into a chicken. Ironically, the song turned out to be a larger commercial success than any of his other recent material. Nevertheless, he was hoping to kill the relationship with the label before they did, and it was not long after “Chicken in Black” that Columbia and Cash parted ways.
In 1986, Cash returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create the album Class of ‘55. This was not the first time he had teamed up with Lewis and Perkins at Sun Studios. On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Lewis backing him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me”, and Elvis doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) singing “Don’t Be Cruel”.
ter Columbia Records dropped Cash from his recording contract, he had a short and unsuccessful stint with Mercury Records from 1987 to 1991 (see Johnny Cash discography).
In 1991, Cash sang lead vocals on a cover version of “Man in Black” for the Christian punk band One Bad Pig’s album I Scream Sunday.
His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s, leading to popularity among a younger audience not traditionally interested in country music. In 1993, he sang the vocal on U2’s “The Wanderer” for their album Zooropa. Although he was no longer sought after by major labels, Cash was approached by producer Rick Rubin and offered a contract with Rubin’s American Recordings label, better known for rap and hard rock.
Under Rubin’s supervision, he recorded the album American Recordings (1994) in his living room, accompanied only by his guitar. The album featured several covers of contemporary artists selected by Rubin and saw much critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash wrote that his reception at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career. This was the beginning of a decade of music industry accolades and surprising commercial success.
Cash and his wife appeared on a number of episodes of the popular television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman starring Jane Seymour. The actress thought so highly of Cash that she later named one of her twin sons after him. He did a cameo in an episode of The Simpsons, playing the voice of a coyote that guides Homer on a spiritual quest. In 1996, Cash released a sequel to American Recordings, Unchained, and enlisted the accompaniment of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which won a Grammy for Best Country Album. Cash, believing he did not explain enough of himself in his 1975 autobiography Man in Black, wrote another autobiography in 1997 entitled Cash: The Autobiography.
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. The diagnosis was later altered to autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. This illness forced Cash to curtail his touring. He was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The albums American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) contained Cash’s response to his illness in the form of songs of a slightly more somber tone than the first two American albums. The video for “Hurt”, generally recognized as ‘his epitaph’, from American IV received particular critical and popular acclaim.
June Carter Cash died of complications following heart valve replacement surgery on May 15, 2003, at the age of seventy-three. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. (The July 5, 2003, concert was his final public appearance.) At the June 21, 2003, concert, before singing “Ring of Fire”, Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage. He spoke of how June’s spirit was watching over him and how she had come to visit him before going on stage. He barely made it through the song. Despite his health issues, he spoke of looking forward to the day when he could walk again and toss his wheelchair into the river near his home.
Less than four months after his wife’s death, Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, while hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 71. He was interred next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Cash is survived by his children and 16 grandchildren.
On May 24, 2005, Vivian Liberto, Cash’s first wife and the mother of Rosanne Cash, died from surgery to remove lung cancer. It was Rosanne Cash’s fiftieth birthday.
In June 2005, his lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, Tennessee, went up for sale by the Cash estate. In January 2006, the house was sold to Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb and wife Linda Gibb and titled in their Florida limited liability company for $2.3 million. The listing agent was Cash’s younger brother, Tommy Cash. The home was destroyed by fire on April 10, 2007.
One of Johnny Cash’s final collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, entitled American V: A Hundred Highways, was released posthumously on July 4, 2006. The album debuted in the #1 position on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album chart the week ending July 22, 2006. The vocal parts of the track were recorded before Cash’s death, but the other instruments were not recorded until about 2005. On February 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash's 78th birthday, the Cash Family, Rick Rubin, and Lost Highway Records released his second posthumous record, titled American VI: Ain't No Grave.