The Man In Black: The Life Of Johnny Cash
One of the biggest names in country music is Johnny Cash. An American icon, he was also a big contributor to gospel, blues, rockabilly and folk music. Known as “The Man In Black” with hit songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire,” Cash was a larger-than-life figure who made a big impact on the music industry and American culture. He sold over 90 million records over the course of his career before his death in 2003 and made his mark on history forever.
Cash’s Family Was Very Poor & Made Money Through Sharecropping
American singer/songwriter Johnny Cash was born J.R. Cash in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. His Southern Baptist family was very poor and made a living by sharecropping. His parents were Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash, and they raised him along with his six siblings. They moved to Dyess, Arkansas when J.R. was just three years old.
Ray Cash relocated his family after President Franklin Roosevelt unveiled the New Deal farming programs. The nine-member Cash family then moved into a five-room house. They farmed 20 acres of cotton and other types of crops in order to survive.
A 12-Year-Old Johnny Helped Dig His Brother’s Grave
When Johnny. was just 12 years old, his older brother Jack died after an accident with a table saw. It tore up Jack’s midsection, and when he tried to escape from the machine, he made the wound worse. Jack survived for a week but eventually succumbed to the injury. His death profoundly affected Johnny.
On the day of his brother’s funeral, Johnny went to the grave site before the rest of the family. There, he helped the workers dig Jack’s grave. He wore his dirty clothes to the service. He was also barefoot due to a previous injury from stepping on a nail.
His Music Teacher Quit After Three Lessons
Johnny worked with his family until he was 18 years old. Life was hard, but everyone relaxed during their downtime by listening to and playing music. His mother was fond of singing folk and hymn ballads, and Johnny was also enveloped in the music of the other field workers.
He started writing music at age 12. When his mother realized how much her son loved music, she saved what money she could to sign him up for singing lessons. His natural, raw talent was so good, his teacher only gave him three lessons before telling him he didn’t need her anymore.
After high school, Johnny took a job abroad.
He Formed His First Band While In The Air Force
Johnny graduated from high school in 1950 and shortly afterward, joined the Air Force as “John R. Cash” because military regulations required he submit a full first name. He spent four years in the military, largely in Landsberg, West Germany. There, he was a radio intercept officer and listened to Soviet radio transmissions.
In Germany, he and some fellow airmen formed the band the Landsberg Barbarians. He learned how to play guitar, started writing songs, and played some live shows. He later recalled how terrible they were as a band, but the beer gave them lots of confidence. They would play “until they threw us out or a fight started.”
He Married His First Wife & Music Became His Side Hustle
While training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, he met future wife Vivian Liberto (pictured second from left). The couple wed in 1954 in Memphis, Tennessee. He supported them as an appliance salesman while still playing music on the side, particularly gospel music.
Johnny used a $5 guitar he bought in Germany, and he became the frontman of a small group. They centered on blues and country and western music. At the start of his music career, he was an average singer but had a powerful voice that resonated with listeners.
Cash Kick-Started His Career At The Same Recording Studio As Elvis Presley
The year Johnny married Vivian, Elvis Presley dropped his first album with Sun Records. Johnny and his bandmates Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins appealed to Sun Records for an audition. Owner Sam Phillips liked their sound but wasn’t a fan of their gospel songs. They later submitted the originals “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” and were signed on as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.
Pictured here are Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash as “The Million Dollar Quartet” on Dec. 4, 1956, in Memphis. This was a one-night jam session at Sun Studios.
This famous song put Johnny on the map.
‘I Walk The Line’ Became A Huge Hit & Cash Moved His Family To California
Other Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two hits included “So Doggone Lonesome” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” In 1956, Johnny wrote “I Walk The Line,” which hit number one on the country music charts and sold 2 million copies. His debut album featured “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”
Cash and his family moved to California in the early ’60s, and he signed on to Columbia Records. His group became the Tennessee Three, and they often performed with June Carter, who co-wrote the hit song “Ring Of Fire.” Cash also starred in a film and on a couple of TV shows.
Johnny’s Wife Vivian Divorced Him After Drugs & Alcohol Started Taking Over
Johnny had an extremely busy touring schedule and was on the road around 300 days a year. His time on tour combined with heavy drug and alcohol abuse caused strain on his family. After 13 years of marriage, Vivian filed for divorce. At the time, they had four daughters: daughter Rosanne (b. 1955), Kathy (b. 1956), Cindy (b. 1959) and Tara (b. 1961).
Johnny’s antics were played out in the 2005 Walk the Line biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix. The couple’s second daughter, Kathy, felt her parent’s relationship was unfairly portrayed on the big screen.
Johnny was anything but law abiding.
Johnny Was Arrested & Hit Rock Bottom
Following his divorce, Johnny was so addicted to drugs, at one point police found him hanging on to life in a small town in Georgia. In another incident, he was arrested for smuggling amphetamines into the United States across the Mexican border. He was arrested again for starting a forest fire in a California park.
“I took all the drugs there are to take, and I drank,” the singer later recalled. “Everybody said that Johnny Cash was through ’cause I was walkin’ around town 150 pounds. I looked like walking death.”
His Most Popular Albums Were Recorded In Prisons
Johnny was arrested a total of seven times between 1959 and 1968 for a variety of offenses, including public drunkenness, reckless driving, and drug possession. One time, he was arrested for picking flowers from somebody’s yard at 2 a.m. He was so upset in his cell, he broke his toe when he kicked the door. He later wrote a song about it.
Some of Johnny’s most popular albums were recorded live in prisons (Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin). While he only spent short stints in jail, and never did time in prison, Johnny felt compassion for prisoners and frequently performed live for them.
One special person helped him break his addictions.
He Married June Carter & Turned His Life Around
Things started changing when his touring partner June Carter got on his case. She helped him get treatment for his drug problems and also turned him back to his Christian roots. She was the rock he needed to turn his life around. The couple wed in 1968, and Johnny started over.
The couple launched The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. The program spotlighted a variety of musicians, including Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong. Cash also used the show to tackle social issues, such as the Vietnam war, prison reform, and Native American rights.
His Next Album Revitalized His Career & He Welcomed A Son
In 1968, Johnny won two Grammy Awards for his live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Fans embraced the album, which led to a boost in his popularity. A couple of years later, he and June welcomed their first and only child together, son John Carter Cash. John was an executive producer for the film Walk The Line about his father’s life.
“The point of the film is my parents’ love affair,” John said of the movie. “That’s the lasting light that lived through their lives. The most important thing for my parents on this earth was their love for each other.”
Johnny Wrote A Bestselling Biography & Made Some Memorable Collaborations
In 1975, Johnny’s biography Man In Black became a bestseller. He was also the youngest person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. By the mid-eighties, he was collaborating with numerous other musicians, including former Sun Records colleagues Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison.
Johnny also teamed up with country stars Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings to form the band Highwaymen, which dropped three studio albums between 1985 and 1995. Johnny also appeared on the U2 song “The Wanderer,” which appeared on the 1993 album Zooropa.
Time took its toll on Johnny in mid life.
He Struggled With Health Problems & Once Again Addiction
While Johnny was dealing with professional success, he struggled with health problems and addiction. In 1983 he had surgery on his abdomen and later admitted himself to the Betty Ford Clinic to seek treatment for addiction. Five years later he had double-bypass heart surgery.
Johnny’s health continued to deteriorate as he aged. In the late ’90s, he was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease called Shy-Drager syndrome. Unfortunately, it was a misdiagnosis. He later learned he had autonomic neuropathy. This nerve disorder can affect blood pressure, digestion, bladder function and more. In 1998, he was hospitalized for pneumonia.
His Music Success Continued Through The ’90s & Early Aughts
While coping with his health problems, Johnny continued to succeed with his music. In 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1997, he wrote another memoir, Cash: The Autobiography.
Johnny won a Grammy Award in 1995 for Best Contemporary Folk Album for an acoustic album, American Recordings, which he produced with Rick Rubin. It featured traditional ballads alongside modern songs. In 2002, he released American IV: The Man Comes Around, which featured both original and cover songs, including tunes from the Beatles and singer Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
After His Wife June Died, Johnny Focused On Music As A Distraction
Johnny performed often with June, who earned five Grammy Awards over the course of her career. She wrote two autobiographies, and her relationship with Johnny was a big part of the film Walk The Line. June was very talented. She played the guitar, banjo, harmonica, and autoharp.
June died in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 15,, 2003 at the age of 73, due to complications from heart-valve replacement surgery. She and Johnny had been married for 35 years. Johnny grieved by turning his focus into the album American V: A Hundred Highways, which was released a week before he died.
Johnny’s love for June was palpable.
He Passed Away Shortly After Of A Broken Heart
Less than four months after June died, Johnny succumbed to complications from diabetes. He died on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71. “Once June passed, he had the will to live long enough to record, but that was pretty much all,” producer Rubin commented.
“A day after June passed, he said, ‘I need to have something to do every day. Otherwise, there’s no reason for me to be here,'” Rubin added. So Johnny focused on completing his last album. After his death, Johnny was buried next to June near their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
The Hit Film Walk The Line Was Released Two Years After His Death
The hit film Walk The Line was based on Johnny’s two memoirs Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words and Cash: The Autobiography. The movie centered largely on his music career and relationship with June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny, Reese Witherspoon played June, and Ginnifer Goodwin played first wife Vivian Liberto.
The movie was nominated for five Oscars at the 78th Academy Awards, and Witherspoon was awarded the Oscar for Best Actress. The film earned more than $186 million worldwide. Johnny’s daughter with his first wife, Rosanne Cash, was critical of the movie and found it very painful to watch.
The film was a hurtful reminder for his family.
Daughter Kathy Felt Her Mother Wasn’t Accurately Portrayed
According to Kathy, her mother Vivian was portrayed as a shrew. “My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career,” she told The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. “That’s not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home.”
Kathy noted how she and her sisters suffered greatly after their parents divorced and while her father struggled with drug addiction. Their mother Vivian Liberto Distin died of complications from lung cancer just months before the film’s release.
Johnny’s Home Was Completely Destroyed Just Four Years After His Death
Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb and his wife Linda purchased Johnny’s lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 2006 for $2.3 million. Gibb decided the house needed some major renovation. Less than a year and a half later, a fire spread throughout the property.
The home was built with a flammable wood preservative, and it couldn’t be saved. The property was destroyed. It was used in the video for Johnny’s final hit, his 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” He and June lived in the house from 1968 until their deaths in 2003.