Born John R. Cash on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, AR; died on September 12, 2003, in Nashville, TN; son of Ray (a farmer) and Carrie (Rivers) Cash; married Vivian Liberto, 1954 (divorced, 1966); married June Carter (a singer-songwriter), 1968; children: (first marriage) Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, Tara; (second marriage) John Carter. Military/Wartime Service: Served in U.S. Air Force, 1950-54. Addresses: Record company--American Recordings, 3500 West Olive, Burbank, CA 91505.

Johnny Cash--"The Man in Black"--has long been known as one of the most influential figures in country music since the 1950s. He has also reached a substantial audience of rock fans, thanks to his outlaw persona, deep, authoritative voice, and dark songs like "Folsom Prison Blues." After enjoying a string of hits in the 1950s and even greater success in the late 1960s, when he was briefly the best-selling recording artist in the world, he saw his edgy, close-to-the-bone style go out of fashion. Even as his 1980s work was neglected, however, he appeared before adoring throngs worldwide. In 1994, well past his sixtieth birthday, he came roaring back with a sparsely recorded album, American Recordings, that ranked among his best work and earned him a Grammy Award. "Can you name anyone in this day and age who is as cool as Johnny Cash?" asked Rolling Stone rhetorically. "No, you can't."

John R. Cash was born into an impoverished Arkansas family in 1932 and grew up working in the cotton fields. His Baptist upbringing meant that the music he heard was almost entirely religious, and the hymns sung by country greats like the Carter Family and Ernest Tubb reached him on the radio and made an indelible impression. "From the time I was a little boy," he recollected to Steve Pond in a 1992 Rolling Stone interview, "I never had any doubt that I was gonna be singing on the radio." His brother Roy formed a band when he was young, increasing John's determination to do the same one day.

Cash had no idea, though, what path would lead him to his destiny. He held a few odd jobs after graduating from Dyess High School in 1950, but eventually opted for a four-year stay in the Air Force. Stationed in Germany, he endured what he would later describe as a lonely, miserable period. Fortunately, he learned to play the guitar and began turning the poetry he'd been writing into song lyrics. After seeing a powerful film about Folsom Prison, he sat down to write what would become one of his signature songs--"Folsom Prison Blues." His empathy for prisoners and other marginalized people would consistently inform his work. With his powerful position in a generally conservative musical world, he also championed Native American rights and other social ills.

Cash left the military in 1954 and married Vivian Liberto, whom he met before joining the Air Force; they had corresponded throughout his tour of duty. The two lived in Memphis, Tennessee, and he earned a meager living selling appliances. "I was the worst salesman in the world," Cash confided to Pond. Nonetheless, he summoned the passion to sell himself as a singer, playing with a gospel group and canvassing radio stations for chances to perform on the air.

Made First Recording

Eventually Cash was granted an audience with trailblazing producer Sam Phillips, at whose Sun Studios the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and others made recordings that would help change the course of popular music. Phillips was a hard sell, but Cash won the opportunity to record his first single; "Cry, Cry, Cry" became a number 14 hit in 1955, and Cash's group played some local gigs with Presley. Pond describes Cash's early records as "stark, unsettling and totally original. The instrumentation was spare, almost rudimentary," featuring bass and lead guitar supplied by his Tennessee Two and Cash's rhythm guitar, which had "a piece of paper stuck underneath the top frets to give it a scratchy sound."

In 1956 Cash left his sales job and recorded the hits "Folsom Prison Blues"--containing the legendary and much-quoted lyric "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"--and "I Walk the Line." The next year saw the release of the one album released by Sun before his departure from the label, Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar. He and the Tennessee Two left the label after a string of hits and signed with CBS/Columbia Records in 1958. Singles he recorded on Sun at Phillips's insistence just before his contract lapsed continued to chart for years afterward, much to Cash's chagrin. Yet he charted on CBS as well with a bevy of singles and such albums as Blood, Sweat and Tears and Ring of Fire.


In the midst of his success, however, Cash grew apart from Vivian and their children. He grew dependent on drink and drugs and became increasingly dissolute. Such misery no doubt contributed force to such work as 1963's "Ring of Fire," which was cowritten by June Carter, who also performed on the track. Cash and Carter--of the famed Carter family--became increasingly close, both professionally and personally. His marriage collapsed in 1966 and he nearly died of an overdose. Cash has long attributed his subsequent rehabilitation to two factors: Carter and God. He and Carter wed in 1968 and later had a son, John.

In any event, Cash expanded his repertoire as the 1960s unfolded, incorporating folk music and protest themes. He recorded songs by folk-rock avatar Bob Dylan and up-and-comers like Kris Kristofferson, but by the end of the decade, driven perhaps by his generally out-of-control life, his hits came largely from novelty songs like Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." Even so, by 1969 Cash was the best-selling recording artist alive, outselling even rock legends The Beatles. That year saw him win two Grammy Awards for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a live album for a worshipful audience of prisoners that led, perhaps inevitably, to Johnny Cash at San Quentin. From 1969 to 1971 he hosted a smash variety program for television, The Johnny Cash Show.

The 1970s saw more career triumphs, notably a Grammy-winning duet with Carter on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," a command performance for President Richard Nixon, acting roles in film and on television, a best-selling autobiography, and several more hit albums, including Man in Black, the title of which would become his permanent show business moniker. While this label has been associated with his "outlaw" image, he and his bandmates originally wore black because they had nothing else that matched; besides, as Cash informed Entertainment Weekly, "black is better for church."

In 1980 Cash was inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. He had become a music hero worldwide, appearing in eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet empire and praising those who agitated for democracy. Yet during the 1980s, Cash became less and less of a priority for his record label; country music had come to be dominated by younger, pop-inclined artists who favored slick production. He continued to struggle with drugs, eventually checking into the Betty Ford clinic. There, he has said, he experienced a religious epiphany.

New Fame Through Collaborations

Cash wrote a novel, Man in White, about the life of the apostle Paul, and continued indulging his eclectic musical tastes, recording songs by mavericks like Elvis Costello. Alongside Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, he participated in a collaborative album, The Highwayman. He also joined Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and country-rock giant Roy Orbison for a reunion recording called Class of '55 (Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming), which enjoyed solid sales. A daughter by his first marriage, Rosanne, became a country star in her own right; Johnny Cash, himself, even as his albums sold poorly, was firmly established as a living legend of country music and a profound influence on rock and roll. In 1992 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and 1993 saw him contribute a vocal performance to Zooropa, by rock superstars U2.

Yet Cash tired of record-business priorities. "I kept hearing about demographics [market studies of consumers] until it was coming out my ears," the singer told Christopher John Farley of Newsweek. The first label representative who seemed to understand him after this bitter experience was, ironically enough, best known for his work with hardcore rap, metal, and alternative acts. Rick Rubin had founded his own label, first called Def American and later changed to American Recordings, to support acts he believed in. Though not intimately acquainted with his work, he admired the Cash's artistic persona. "I don't see him as a country act," Rubin told Farley. "I would say he embodies rock 'n' roll. He's an outlaw figure, and that is the essence of what rock 'n' roll is."

Rubin's appeal to Cash lay in his idea for a record. After seeing one of the country legend's performances, the producer "said he'd love to hear just me and my guitar," Cash told Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn. These were the words the veteran artist had waited decades to hear; he had suggested such a minimal approach many times to country producers, only to have it vetoed immediately on commercial grounds. Rubin simply set up a tape machine in his Hollywood living room and allowed Cash to do what he does best.

Rubin "was a lot like Sam [Phillips], actually," Cash ventured to Hilburn. "We talked a lot about the approach we were going to take, and he said, 'You know, we are not going to think about time or money. I want you to come out as much as you can." Without such constraints--which had clipped Cash's wings in his Nashville years--he was free to experiment with a wide range of material. Recording over 70 songs, mostly at Rubin's house but also at his own cabin in Tennessee and at the trendy Los Angeles nightspot The Viper Room, Cash had a valedictory experience. He later told Time's Farley that the work was his "dream album."

First American Recording

The material was culled to 13 tracks, including traditional songs, some Cash originals, and compositions by such diverse modern songwriters as Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, and Loudon Wainright III. The leadoff track, "Delia's Gone," grimly describes the murder of a faithless woman; Rubin seemed to invite comparisons between Cash and the controversial metal and rap acts on his label. Titled American Recordings, the album was released in 1994; Johnny Cash was 62 years old. The liner notes contained testimonials from both Rubin and Cash. "I think we made a brutally honest record," the producer declared. "Working with Rick," Cash averred, "all the experimenting, kinda spread me out and expanded my range of material. This is the best I can do as an artist, as a solo artist, this is it."

Critics seemed to agree. Karen Schoemer of Mirabella praised it as "a daring, deceptively simple album" that "operates on a mythic scale, which suits someone who's always been larger than life. What is breathtaking is Cash's ability to analyze his aging self, and the failures, weaknesses, strengths and wisdoms that time bestows." Village Voice critic Doug Simmons praised it as "fiercely intimate," while Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis called it "unquestionably one of his best albums," one which "will earn him a time of well-deserved distinction in which his work will reach an eager new audience."

While American Recordings didn't take the charts by storm, it restored Johnny Cash's sense of mission. It also earned him a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. He played a sold-out engagement in Los Angeles just before his nomination, before an audience studded with such music stars as Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, and Dwight Yoakam. And in September of 1996 he played a set at the CMJ Music Marathon in Manhattan, previewing songs from a new album, Unchained, as well as performing cover versions from younger artists such as Beck and Soundgarden.

In later years, health problems caused Cash to limit his touring schedule. He suffered from Shy-Drager's Syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease that can cause blackouts, tremors, muscle stiffness, and made him prone to pneumonia. He was hospitalized with pneumonia twice in 1998 and again in October 1999. Yet, as the 1990s waned and the millennium turned over, Cash--approaching the end of his seventh decade--returned to the recording studio and issued American III: Solitary Man in 2000; the title track from that album won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Also in 2000 he compiled a three-disc retrospective boxed set, called Love, God, Murder. It was one of more than 100 retrospective packages that had been compiled since the 1950s. Indeed, 1999 alone saw the release of nearly two dozen Cash collections, and that year he was honored also with a lifetime achievement Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Connected With a Younger Generation

About the prospect of an "eager new audience" Cash himself--who seriously considered playing at the alternative-rock festival known as Lollapalooza before declining the offer--was philosophical. "I no longer have a grandiose attitude about my music being a powerful force for change," he told Entertainment Weekly. Even so, he allowed, "I think [today's youth] sees the hypocrisy in government, the rotten core of social ills and poverty and prejudice, and I'm not afraid to say that's where the trouble is. A lot of people my age are." One thing remained constant, as he told Rolling Stone: "I feel like if I can just go onstage with my guitar and sing my songs, I can't do no wrong no matter where I am."

Cash continued to reach this new audience with a fourth effort in the American Recordings series, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Once again, the legendary country singer delved into the works of younger artists like Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and the Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." The latter song also became a popular video, launching the song onto the Modern Rock Tracks chart. The video, directed by Mark Romanek, earned six nominations at the 2003 Music Television (MTV) Awards, and won in the best cinematography category. American IV: The Man Comes Around rose to number two on the Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold in 2003.

Cash's success, however, was mingled with continued health problems and personal tragedy. June Carter Cash, his wife of 35 years, died of complications following heart surgery on May 15, 2003. "After June died," friend Kris Kristofferson told People, "life was a struggle for him. His daughter told me he cried every night." Cash was eager to attend the MTV Awards in August, but had been re-admitted to the hospital due to complications from diabetes. On September 12, 2003, almost four months after the death of his wife, Cash died. A memorial service, held at Hendersonville, North Carolina on September 15, 2003, was attended by friends, family, and his musical peers. "He stood up for the underdogs, the downtrodden, the prisoners, the poor, and he was their champion," Kristofferson told People. "He appealed to people all over the world."

by Simon Glickman and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr

Johnny Cash's Career

Worked in auto assembly plant and margarine factory, 1949-50; recorded debut single "Hey Porter"/"Cry, Cry, Cry" for Sun Records, 1955; released debut album Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar, 1957; signed with Columbia Records and released Ride This Train, 1960; hosted television program The Johnny Cash Show, 1969-71; produced, cowrote, and narrated documentary film The Gospel Road, 1973; wrote autobiography Man in Black and novel Man in White; signed with Mercury Records and released Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town, 1987; signed to American Recordings and released American Recordings, 1994; released Unchained, 1996; issued box set, Love, God, Murder, 2000; recorded American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002.

Johnny Cash's Awards

Grammy Awards: (with June Carter) Best Country and Western Performance Duet, 1967; Best Album Notes, 1968; Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, 1968; Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, 1969; Best Album Notes, 1969; (with June Carter) Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, 1970; (with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips, Rick Nelson, and Chips Moman) Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, 1986; Best Contemporary Folk Album, 1994; (with Rick Rubin) Best Country Album, 1997; Best Male Country Vocal Performance, 2000; Best Male Country Vocal Performance, 2002; Best Short Form Music Video, 2003; Country Music Association Awards, Album of the Year, 1968; Single of the Year, 1969; Album of the Year, 1969; (with June Carter-Cash) Vocal Group of the Year, 1969; Male Vocalist of the Year, 1969; Entertainer of the Year, 1969; Single of the Year, 2003; Album of the Year, 2003; Music Video of the Year, 2003; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1980; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992; Songwriters Guild of America, Aggie Award (highest honor), 1989; National Medal of Honor, 2001.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 14, 2004: A custom-made acoustic guitar that belonged to Cash sold for $131,200 at an estate sale. Source: USA Today,, September 23, 2004.

February 2006: Ring of Fire, a stage musical featuring 38 of Cash

Further Reading



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