Johnny Cash arguably became one of the most influential people to ever step onto a stage with a guitar. He won many awards and honors for his contributions to music. Later in his career, which spanned over five decades, he was also a published author. These and many other achievements earned him places in not one, but three prestigious music halls of fame. However, not many know about where Johnny Cash came from, or the story of his life behind the curtain, when he stepped off stage.
Johnny Cash was born the fourth of seven children, in Kingsland Arkansas. His siblings were Roy, Louise, Margaret, Reba, Joanne, Tommy, and Jack, whom Johnny was closest to. Tommy also became a successful country singer. Johnny’s parents were named Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree. He was originally named J.R. Cash, according to Leigh H. Edwards word in Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity, because his parents could not think of a name (23). He decided on the name “John” when he enlisted in the Air Force, unable to use the initials J.R. When he began to sing, in 1955, he took his stage name: Johnny Cash (26). When Johnny was three, in 1935, the family moved to Dyess, Arkansas. At the age of five, he began working in cotton fields with his family. This time in his life, coupled with his family’s struggle and survival through The Great Depression inspired Cash to write many songs. In particular, the family farm being flooded twice later inspired him to write the song “Five Feet High and Rising” . Cash’s early life was full of many hardships. Unfortunately, in 1944, Cash’s dear brother, Jack, at the mill where he workd. He was nearly cut in half by a saw milland suffered greatly before dying on May 20, 1944 (49). Cash himself wrote in Cash: The Autobiography that he, his mother, and Jack all sensed something bad would happen that day, but Jack insisted on working anyway (105). Cash was racked with guilt but later, on his own deathbed, talked about being happy to meet his brother in heaven.
Despite these hardships, Cash found solace in music. His mother taught him gospel music and he listened to the radio often. She and one of Cash’s playmates taught him how to play guitar and he was able to write his own songs by the age of 12 . He even sang for the local radio station when he reached high school. Putting his love of music on hold, in 1950 Cash enlisted in the Air Force, eventually being stationed in Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code Intercept for transmissions for the Soviet Army. He was actually the first radio operator to hear that Joseph Stalin had died . It was in Germany that Cash created his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. In 1954 he was honorably discharged and returned to Texas, for what, he did not know.
During Cash’s initial training for the Air Force, he had met Vivian Liberto. The two dated for a few weeks before Cash was deployed, during which time they wrote love letters. Upon his return they were married. The two had four daughters: Kathy, Cindy, Rosanne, and Tara . The marriage was short-lived, lasting only until 1966 when Liberto filed for divorce due to Cash’s close relationship with June Carter (34). Prior to this, in 1954, Cash’s career began to take shape. Cash and Liberto moved to Memphis. Cash studied to be a radio announcer while selling appliances to support the family. By night, according to Anthony DeCurtis’ article “1932-2003: Johnny Cash” published in Rolling Stone, he would meet with bassist, Marshal Grant, and guitarist, Luther Perkins to play (71). Perkins and Grant were known then as the Tennessee Two. Eventually, Cash visited Sun Records in hopes of getting noticed. He sang mostly gospel songs, auditioning for Sam Phillips, but unfortunately Phillips no longer recorded gospel music. In Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity, Leigh H. Edwards wrote that it was rumored Phillips advised Cash to do some sinning before writing another song (60). Cash later denied this in an interview, insisting he won Phillips over on his own merit . “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry” were Cash’s first recordings with Sun, completed in 1955 and a huge success.
Following this success, Cash released “Folsom Prison Blues”. This album made into the Top 5 on the country charts while “I Walk the Line” was number 1 on the country charts. With the successive release of “Home of the Blues” in 1957, Cash became one of Sun Record’s most consistently selling artists of that year. The success was great but Cash began to feel suffocated by his contract’s restraints and the small label. He was also becoming upset at his percentage of royalty returns being 2% less than most artists. Many artists, such as Presley, had already left Sun Records, and in 1958 Cash followed him, signing a deal with Columbia Records . It was then, in the early 1960’s that Cash began to tour with the Carter Family, including June Carter. It was also during this time that Cash began to abuse certain substances very heavily.
As Cash’s career began to form, he began to drink. He also became addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines, according to House of Cash: Legacies of My Father Johnny Cash author, John Carter Cash (98). Friends would joke about Cash’s nervousness but this was actually a red flag, a warning sign to his worsening addiction to uppers that were his only chance to stay awake after a long night of drinking. Cash claimed in his autobiography that he had tried every drug available during his time . The warning signs were difficult to pinpoint because, despite this erratic activity, Cash was still putting out hits like “Ring of Fire”. Eventually the behavior became unacceptable. In 1965, Cash drunkenly allowed his truck’s wheel bearing to overheat which started a forest fire in Los Padres National Forest. The fire destroyed several hundred acres of land but Cash was undeterred, stating that he was not to blame, but that his truck was, and his truck was dead so it could not be questioned. Weary with his actions, the state sued him and was awarded $125,172 for their trouble, though Cash eventually settled out of court for $82,001 . His antics landed him in jail seven times though he somehow managed to escape being sent to prison. The most notorious incident took place when Cash was caught with nearly 500 Equanil tablets and almost 700 Dexedrine capsules. Because they were not illegal narcotics he received a suspended sentence.
Though the public had grown tired of his actions, they had not grown tired of his talent. In 1967, despite his criminal record and rising drug problem, Cash won a Grammy Award for his duet with June Carter. The pair sang “Jackson” (73). During what he called the experience that saved his life in Walker County, Georgia, Cash was arrested for the last time in 1967. A Sheriff named Ralph Jones warned Cash about his behavior and Cash began trying to change his ways, until 1968 when under the heavy influence of drugs he tried to kill himself in the Nickajack Cave. He passed out and claimed to feel god in the cave with him. Following this he asked June to move into his mansion for a month to help him overcome his addiction to substances. She agreed and one month later, Cash proposed to her on stage in London, Ontario, Canada . The two married a week later.
Though Cash continued to abuse drugs occasionally, the birth of his son, John Carter Cash, inspired a drug free period in Cash’s life from 1970 to 1977. In 1983 Cash was again addicted and checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, seeking rehabilitation. This sparked another period of sobriety but once again Cash found himself addicted in 1989. This time he retreated to the Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center in Nashville. Again in 1992 he found himself checking into rehab, this time the Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Centre. Unfortunately he was followed to this same facility by his son a few months later.
After all of the cycling treatment and abuse, in 1997 Cash discovered he was suffering from autonomic neuropathy as a result of his diabetes. The illness ended Cash’s touring and he was hospitalized shortly after the diagnosis with damaged lungs and pneumonia. Much like in his childhood, Cash once again overcame the odds, releasing American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002. The songs were melancholy and Cash’s response to what was happening to his body as well as what was being taken from him . Johnny Cash’s beloved and devoted wife, June Carter Cash, died on May 15, 2003. She has asked him to continue working and he followed orders, completing sixty songs in his four remaining months of life (73).
In conclusion, Johnny Cash had a very wild and exciting life. There were many struggles in his childhood but through his struggles he found his love for music. Growing up he was able to travel and serve his country, while still maintaining his dream to sing. It is unfortunate that his first marriage did not work out but the love he shared with June was some to be marveled at. June stuck by him through many cycles of addiction and many failures, as well as many successes. Though Jonny Cash is a famous singer, who has won many awards, it is important to remember that he was also a human who lived a life off the stage. He had weaknesses that devoured him. He made mistakes that hurt others. But ultimately, at the end, he had a life filled with love, as he displayed with the love he had for his second wife. Though he was not perfect, Johnny Cash was an interesting, maybe even a great, man.
Cash, John Carter. House of Cash: Legacies of My Father Johnny Cash. Hendersonville: Inside Editions LLC, 2011.
Cash, Johnny R. Cash: The Autobiography. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
DeCurtis, Anthony. "1932-2003: Johnny Cash." Rolling Stone 16 October 2003: 70-73.
Edwards, Leigh H. Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.